As long-time readers will be aware, I enjoyed watching Tiger King, the Netflix documentary series about Joe Exotic, the owner of a seedy roadside zoo in Oklahoma.
Joe’s zoo, his feud with animal rights campaigner Carole Baskin and his subsequent imprisonment for trying to hire a hit man to kill her, captured the imagination of the nation at the start of the lockdown.
While the documentary series was a hit, its ten episodes were insufficient to tell the whole sordid tale. I’ve already given you a list of books to read if you want to learn more about the animal trade, but now I’m reviewing a true crime book that delves far deeper than the show ever could.
Tiger Wars: Joe Exotic VS. The Big Cat Queen runs through all of the facets of the tale of roadside zoo owner Joe that the TV show explored, but using more detail and offering additional information.
The book takes you through many of Joe’s insane exploits, including his multiple marriages, his forays into politics, his shady business dealings, his exploitation of his staff, the abuse he doled out to his animals and more. Writer Al Cimino puts together a compelling dossier that shows how manipulative and fiendish Joe is, as well as how stupid and arrogant he was before he was eventually caught trying to hire a hit man to kill his rival.
Cimino is more sympathetic towards Carole Baskin, the animal activist and sanctuary owner that Joe tried to have murdered than the TV series. In the show, she comes across as equally as insane and shady as Joe, but the book gives a more balanced view of her strange life and the fact that much of Joe’s anger and hate wasn’t based in facts.
As Tiger Wars shows, Joe lives in a world of fantasy, with many of his tall tales either unsubstantiated or completely contested by others who were actually there. The author tries to put across an impartial tone, but it is clear that he disbelieves much of what Joe says.
He is also passionate about more than just Joe and the insane world that he lives in; the writer is also concerned about the animals he had in his care. It’s clear that America has a long way to go to change the way that big cats and other wild creatures are treated and cared for, and the book puts the flaws in the system in stark relief.
This true crime book takes a close look at Joe’s trial, which wasn’t covered in the TV show. Readers get a taste of how crazy Joe is, and how disgusting his behaviour really was. It also gives a glimpse into an area that the show didn’t let us see, which is fascinating. The book’s courtroom chapters are deeply engrossing and highlight the seedy side of exotic animal ownership in America.
One criticism I have of the book is that it doesn’t go much beyond the narrative that the show used. Joe’s eccentric life included many chapters, but the book chooses to shed more light on tales that fans of the show already know about. It would have been nice for the author to explore some unchartered territory and bring readers a unique insight into Joe’s madness.
However, the book is incredibly well researched, so the reader is presented with the full picture, as opposed to the edited version that the show gave us. Also, because the author has explored all of the available sources of information, including court documents and newspaper records, the reader can see the full extent of Joe’s illegal and immoral activities. It does have to be said, that the book sometimes doesn’t give the reader the exact source of the quotes it uses, so it can be hard for the reader to understand exactly how the information was obtained.
Something that makes me laugh about the book is that it is unevenly censored. In some parts, the author refuses to quote Joe because he uses expletives, or he simply uses the word expletive to cover a rude word. Then the next chapter, the book uses the words ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ without a care in the world. Alongside some typos and minor grammatical errors, this issue makes Tiger Wars feel rushed, like the author hurried to get it out in time to capitalise on the Tiger King fad before it passed.
When all is said and done, I enjoyed reading Tiger Wars and delving deeper into the murky world of Joe Exotic. The book also gave me more insight into the serious lack of legislation in America around the ownership of exotic animals, and how this issue can cause major problems for the animals themselves. In that respect, despite its flaws, the book outperforms the TV show, which focused exclusively on Joe and turned him and his questionable zoo into a freak show. The book is informative, as well as entertaining, making it the perfect read for fans of the show and animal lovers alike.