Millions of us who are staying at home in this time of coronavirus are discovering to our dismay just how much the clown car of halfwits, freaks, and grotesques of “reality TV” has taken over our living rooms. The endless parade of bachelors, teen moms, real housewives, and Kardashians have slowly sapped at our dignity. So what if we told you we’d found the most insane reality of all? Something one critic described as “like watching a slow-motion car crash, but only if that car crashed into a jet plane and then both tumbled into an oil tanker”? Would that convince you to finally watch?
And . . . what if we told you it had tigers?
Tiger King is Netflix’s newest #1 hit, a true-crime trainwreck featuring Joe Exotic (real name: who cares?). Joe’s a gun-toting country singer with two husbands and a mullet you’ll swear you recognize from a Billy Ray Cyrus video. But what made him special was owning a private zoo with over 200 tigers. The show follows Joe’s descent into madness as he winds up in prison for hiring a hit man to kill Carol Baskin, an animal-rights activist working to outlaw private ownership of tigers and other big cats.
(Ironically, Baskin herself was the prime suspect in the 1997 disappearance of her husband Don. Joe even recorded a music video accusing her of feeding Don to her tigers. We told you this show was insane!)
At this point, you’re probably wondering “where’s the tax angle?” If we’re being honest, it’s a stretch. (We decided to write this week’s column about the show long before we figured out the tax hook.) But it’s worth mentioning that while Joe Exotic may not have a head for style, he does have a fair head for business. Running any business is hard. But running a private zoo is especially hard considering your competitors don’t have to worry about paying taxes!
Take the Bronx Zoo, for example. It sits on 265 acres less than six miles from Yankee Stadium. It’s owned by the Wildlife Conservation Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. As such, it doesn’t pay sales tax or property tax. The Society collects $300+ million per year, including $50+ million in tax-deductible contributions, and manages over $1 billion in assets.
Joe’s zoo occupied 16 acres south of Oklahoma City. Joe paid every tax in the book. And while his staff and contractors were happy to accept substandard pay for the thrill of helping the animals, most of the donations it got went straight to feeding the tigers. (Don’t ask.)
Joe’s for-profit status gave him some advantages — he could do things most zoos couldn’t (or wouldn’t). He started breeding ligers (offspring of a male lion and female tiger), tigons, liligers, and even a tililiger. (Don’t ask.) Tililigers, of course, don’t exist in nature. They’re the big-cat equivalent of Californium and Nobelium — those manmade additions to the Periodic Table of Elements that exist only for fleeting milliseconds when physicists bombard simpler elements in particle accelerators.
Look, we could go on and on. The meth! The embezzlement! The wiretaps! The presidential run! By now you’re either in or you’re out. If you’re in, park yourself in front of Netflix and buckle up. If not, there’s something worthwhile on Masterpiece Theatre. The taxes can wait ’till next week.