We get it. The "Tiger King" hype is over and you're tired of hearing about it... but there is something we still need to talk about.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (which, honestly, could be possible given the current state of everything right now), you’ve heard of Netflix’s latest docuseries – Tiger King. The 8-episode documentary explores the little-known world of big cat ownership in the United States and the eccentric characters involved in the trade. It is unlikely that you have escaped the past several weeks without an image of a tiger, a mullet, or a meme that said “Carole Baskin Killed Her Husband”. But what if we told you that the biggest takeaway from this docuseries wasn’t the breeder’s abuse of their tigers, but their abuse of their people? While many people are taken by the potential murders, animal abuse and all-around insanity that takes place in the tiger-breeding industry, one thing really stood out to us – the grooming techniques some of the main cast of the documentary use on the people in their life, not just the animals. These exact techniques are used by traffickers and pimps to manipulate and control their victims.
Note: Tiger King is rated TV-MA and may not be suitable for all audiences. There will be spoilers in this article, so if you still plan on watching it, we recommend you save this article and read it later. In addition to spoilers, we will be discussing trafficking and grooming tactics which may be triggering to some readers.
Let’s Start with Doc Antle
The self-proclaimed Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle is the owner of T.I.G.E.R.S. preserve. His preserve is primarily staffed by young, attractive females who work 16-hour days for $100 a week. Yes, you read that correctly. That comes to about $0.89 an hour. The women that work there typically come when they are young – in their mid to late teens. They are brought in through an “apprentice program” and molded into the woman ‘Doc Antle’ wants them to be.
The documentary suggests that Antle has 3 wives and many more girlfriends (the actual number is never clarified). According to Barbara Fisher, a former staff member at T.I.G.E.R.S. who was interviewed in the documentary, the apprenticeship program encourages the young women to be sexually intimate with Antle in order to provide them “enlightenment.” The following are a few of the very specific tactics Antle uses to manipulate and control these women:
Grooming Tactic #1: Change and Control The Victim’s Identity
The first thing he does is he changes their identity. The women on the preserve are given a new name. He tells them what to wear, where to go, who to see and who to be. He even goes so far as to force some of them to have breast implants. This kind of behavior breaks down any sense of self that the women have and makes them easier to manipulate.
Grooming Tactic #2: Remove ALL Connections to the Outside World
He cuts them off from any connections to their former lives. The women work 7 days a week, even on holidays and birthdays. “Weddings, funerals, and relationships at Christmas fade away,” says Antle. When a person is completely cut off from any outside world, it is very difficult to leave a situation like Antle’s preserve.
“They’re being held by a thousand social ties and the idea of losing everything... how are they going to go and where are they even going to go?” – Barbara Fisher, former apprentice of Doc Antle
Grooming Tactic #3: The Promise of a Better Life
Antle sells the preserve as a utopia as a group of free-spirited vegetarians who train big cats through the principles of yoga, happy and free of outside strife. Sounds peaceful, right? This message was enough to get many women through the door. Once the young women are there, they quickly realize that life on the preserve is not what they had envisioned. Barbara Fisher stated they lived in roach-infested horse stalls at the beginning of their stay. However, Antle has three wives who live in large houses on the other side of the compound and “have their every need taken care of”. The workers see the “big house” as the promise of a better life… and if they just do what Antle says, maybe someday they can live that life too.
It’s worth noting that, when the documentarian asks Doc Antle if they can see the “big house”, he jokingly responds with “My complex lifestyle is not for primetime.”, which, if nothing else, is further proof that Antle is a man with something to hide.
Grooming Tactic #4: Become the Victim’s Only Source of Love
Antle takes a specific type of girl – typically virgins – to work on his preserve. When he sleeps with them it forms an intense emotional bond that makes it hard to leave. Barbara Fisher herself says that “I know I’ll always love Doc, because he meant so much to me for so long.” Even though she has left his grasp, she still feels love for him despite the abuse. As their only source of love and provision, Doc Antle has complete control over the women that work there. “Bhagavan”, according to Doc Antle, means “Lord”.
“My complex lifestyle is not for primetime.” - Bhagavan "Doc" Antle
Grooming Tactic #5: Find Vulnerable People Who Are Searching
Antle brings on women when they are young and looking for direction. These people buy into the promises Antle makes. He breaks them down and tells them they are garbage, but if they listen to Antle, he will make them better. The quote that really hammers this home for us is again from Barbara Fisher:
“I was really looking for someone to tell me what to do.” - Barbara Fisher, former apprentice of Doc Antle
The Grooming Tactics Used by Joe Exotic
Through the course of the docuseries, Joe had three husbands. Though we can’t speak to the sexual orientation of his third husband, we do know that his first two husbands were not gay. They both identified as straight, and before they met Joe, they only dated women. This just goes to show the power of grooming - taking two straight men and bringing them into what they perceived to be a willing (and polyamorous) relationship with a man. Joe used many of the same tactics Antle used on his husbands, such as giving them the promise of a better life and finding people who were impressionable and searching. Both of his husbands came to the park when they were 19. When Joe married Travis, his second husband, Joe was 32 years older than Travis.
Grooming Tactic #6: Use Addiction as a Form of Control
Both John and Travis were heavily reliant on drugs while they were married to Joe. They used weed, cocaine and meth – highly addictive substances. When a brain becomes addicted to drugs like meth, it becomes the only important thing (similar to how a brain reacts to pornography). It drives people to do anything they can to continue getting drugs and continue feeling high. Joe used drugs to keep these men close.
Grooming Tactic #7: Control People Who Have No Other Options in Life
Many of the people that worked for Joe, who at best made around $2.14 an hour, came to his zoo with no other options in life. They were addicts or people who had just been released from jail. Although the people lived in squalor and made little money, they didn’t have any other options besides staying at the zoo and working there. Traffickers often find people who feel like they have no other option and use that to their advantage. Even if those people want to leave, they don’t feel like there’s any other option but to stay.
Grooming Tactic #8: Control The Victim’s Every Movement
Travis and John, Joe’s husbands, were not allowed to leave the park. They weren’t allowed to have relationships with other people or do what they wanted. Travis actually complained -on camera- that he was a prisoner, and that he couldn’t leave and he couldn’t get a job. This meant that Travis was not able to connect with others and find a way out of the life he was living.
Love People Not Pixels is proud of our partnerships with other anti-trafficking organizations, and through these partnerships we have had the honor of knowing survivors of trafficking and ex-traffickers alike. In our mission to fight the demand for sex trafficking, we are constantly faced with this question:
“Well if the women don’t want to do this, why don’t they just leave?”
The unfortunate reality is that people who are being trafficked do not have an opportunity to leave because of the physical and emotional trauma that grooming tactics just like these create. Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg of all the abuses that went on during the docuseries. This is by no means a comprehensive look at the techniques used in the series. However, we believe this is a good starting point to start to understand the impact that grooming has on a person.
We’re not encouraging you to watch Tiger King. While the mini-series is over-the-top, original, and interesting, there is very little redeeming value in the documentary. However, if you did watch it or plan on watching it, we encourage you to look at Tiger King from a new lens. We hope that this real world example can help everyone understand the forces that lead to human trafficking so we can all come together and Defend.