The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Tiger King: Who’s Really in the Cage?


Tiger King is a bizarre show for bizarre times. The ‘true-crime documentary series’ gives a window into the peculiar ‘underworld of big cat breeding’. It opens with the shocking fact that there are more tigers in captivity in North America than in the wild globally.

At least, I found that shocking at first. Seven episodes later, someone has lost their arm to a tiger, a man has accidentally killed himself, and ‘Joe Exotic’, the polygamous, arson-committing, country-singing owner of 1200 big cats has run for president before being convicted of the attempted murder of an animal rights activist who maybe killed her husband.

And breathe.

By this point, the extreme exploitation of workers, casual drug abuse, and cultic semblances barely caused me to bat an eyelid. And that in itself is uncomfortable – it’s amazing how quickly we can become so numb to so much brokenness.

But there’s something even more disturbing about this Netflix series, amplified by its soaring popularity.

In the ‘documentary’, people flock to see these strange animals. And, in an ironic twist, it turns out the viewer has much in common with visitors to these zoos. The show puts the characters in a cage, and we pay Netflix to look around.

The trailer alone suggests that Tiger King revels in its ridiculousness. It’s a circus, and the characters are the acts. By the end, they cease to be real people. They’re just the butt of Netflix’s joke, and we’re the ones laughing. Most conversations I’ve heard about Tiger King – and the ‘hilarious’ memes created since – involve causally comparing characters, judging their actions, and debating who’s worst.

But what would it look like if Jesus walked in? The gospels are littered with examples where he refuses to stand in pious judgment, but is instead moved by love and compassion – a love that ultimately leads him to the cross. Jesus doesn’t excuse sinfulness, or the damage it causes, but he refuses to let it have the final word.

Wouldn’t he treat the people in this show the same way? And, as his followers, in what we watch and with the people meet, shouldn’t we do this as well? After all, we’re broken too.

Maybe then we’d understand the devotion of our saviour, who willingly associated with the lowest in society. Maybe we’d be slower to demonise, quicker to empathise, and ready to embrace those others might seek to ridicule. And maybe we’d be more able to love those around us as Jesus does, however broken they may be.


Matt Jolley
Research Assistant, LICC


Matt Jolley


  1. Thank you very much for the thoughts Matt, hopefully spurring us on to love and compassion.

    ‘The gospels are littered with examples where he refuses to stand in pious judgment, but is instead moved by love and compassion…’

    By John Williamson  -  8 May 2020
  2. Thanks Matt, Highlights helpfully, and echoes part of a conversation I had yesterday with my 23 year old son. I’ll send him this!

    By Graham Christopher  -  8 May 2020
  3. Am I silly or radical when I suggest you just should not Watch this kind of series? Are there no limits to “Entertainment” (old query: what does “Entertainment” entertain?)

    By Martin Slabbekoorn  -  8 May 2020
  4. Thanks for applying gospel reflection to an unusually ‘out there’ and bizarre piece of pop culture – valuable to do. To respond to Martin’s comment above, I think to ‘taste’ such a show as a Christian and then respond positively, including in meaningful interaction with people who do, can be constructive. I don’t have Netflix, so not presented with the particular dilemma in this case 🙂

    By Bruce Gulland  -  11 May 2020

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