OPINION: Has hype around Netflix's 'Tiger King' masked signs of human trafficking?

by Rochelle Keyhan | Collective Liberty
Thursday, 23 April 2020 10:00 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Joe Exotic and Doc Antle shown underpaying, abusing and controlling employees using tactics deployed by traffickers

Rochelle Keyhan is the CEO of Collective Liberty, an national anti-trafficking NGO equipping systems to disrupt human trafficking

The runaway Netflix hit "Tiger King" spends a lot of time on the mystery of whether Carole Baskin killed her husband. But there are a few other enigmas in the show that are even more compelling.

Did it ever strike you as strange that Joe Exotic appeared to lure and control young men with drugs? Or that Doc Antle recruited lost women looking for a purpose in life? That both men underpaid and overworked their staff? Such behaviors are hallmarks of human trafficking and warrant a closer look.

When Joe met his spouses John Finlay and Travis Maldonado, they were drug addicted, far from home, and each just 19-years-old – a combination of factors that left them vulnerable to exploitation. 

As Joe’s relationship with John progressed, he paid for his husband to be branded with a tattoo across his entire lower abdomen that read “Privately Owned by Joe Exotic”. 

This type of branding and claiming ownership over another individual is commonly observed among sex trafficking victims. There are services all over the United States helping victims to remove or tattoo over their brandings - a step taken by John in the final episode of the series.

John and Travis were both addicted to methamphetamine when they met Joe Exotic. In the show, it is implied that Joe would both provide and withhold drugs to maintain his relationships with the men, a common control tactic used by traffickers to exploit the dependency of their victims. Joe’s local celebrity status further fueled the power imbalances, and throughout the series, the employees all describe his behavior as predatory around these young men.

Aside from his husbands, Joe berated his staff regularly, appeared to fire people at will, and created a work environment where everyone seemed to be living on edge. One employee, Saff, sacrificed his arm – having decided against surgery after being bitten by a tiger – in order to protect Joe and the park from bad publicity. The staff were underpaid and subjected to dangerous working conditions. Employees who are not paid the minimum wage and are denied overtime pay and benefits when working full-time are victims of exploitation, and particularly susceptible to modern slavery.

Meanwhile at ”T.I.G.E.R.S.” in South Carolina – the other big-cat park featured in “Tiger King” - Doc Antle’s recruitment tactics mirror methods of entrapment seen in labor trafficking and personal sexual servitude.

One of Doc Antle’s former apprentices, Barbara Fisher, has been speaking out against his workplace environment since at least 2017 when she published an essay in the Iowa Informer. Doc Antle’s 2 year apprenticeship program that she participated in was unpaid for 16+ hour days, 7 days a week, and included requirements for physical appearance, relationship, and parental status - most of which is arguably irrelevant to working with the animals.

Throughout the Tiger King docuseries, Barbara described how Doc Antle encourage employees to sleep with him to progress professionally. He used their passions and feeling of “having purpose” in their lives as a form of control, in a similar vain to how Joe Exotic seemed to manipulate Saff. This form of recruiting women for a job, and then turning it into a sexual relationship directly tied to their employment success, is a model followed by countless exploiters.

Take for example R. Kelly, who has been accused of targeting aspiring musicians, luring them under false prentences and grooming them for sexual exploitation. The singer, facing trial in three states over sexual abuse, child pornography, kidnapping and obstruction of justice, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Stories of exploitative individuals are all around us — from crime reports to pop culture. But real people's lives are at stake when we fail to take such abuses seriously. We must keep this in mind while discussing the planned reunion shows and sequel docuseries digging into whether or not Carole killed her husband.

Her story is compelling, sure, but we most ensure we are not ignoring the exploitation and warning signs of potential human trafficking that are happening in plain sight.