First, it came for my sister. Then it came for my brother. Then my mother. Finally, it came for me. I have now watched all seven episodes of Netflix’s new hit docu-series, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness.
I can now talk about it with the fluency of the entire wired world, which, in a bit of nostalgia-inducing synchronicity, seems to have agreed that this sordid tale is the one thing we all should be watching while on lockdown. If ever a show were produced for cliffhanger endings and Netflix’s dangerous auto-play function, it is Tiger King; the story beats rise and fall in absurdity, disturbing behavior, cruelty, vulgarity, sweetness, charm, and more, but rest assured they will peak in the moments just before an episode ends.
I’m happy that I watched, that I caught up with my family, that I can understand the memes now, that I participated in the zeitgeisty thing in the midst of the coronavirus scare. But I’m not sure I’m feel good about myself that I feel happy. Because, let’s make no mistake about it: This show is full of rampant and largely unrepentant animal abuse. And it is terrible.
But as a journalist and storyteller, I view the show as found treasure, much like the creators did as they show how they came to tell the story at all. An initial story idea about the sale of venomous snakes was completely abandoned as soon as they saw a young tiger in a cage in some hot van. And away they went, down a rabbit hole of weirdness, and, I’m sure, so many moments of genuine disbelief at what was unfolding before them that their heads probably spun a bit each night as they reflected on their day.
The journalist in me gets it; the storyteller in me knows this is a story to beat all stories. But there is a moment of self-reflection that journalists feel when we consider what we’re writing about and why it’s worthy of attention at all. Maybe it’s salacious. Maybe it’s gossipy. Maybe it’s extreme in its peculiarity. So many of those adjectives apply because something terrible is going on, something ugly, something that people don’t necessarily need to know but rather won’t be able to help themselves from wanting to know. I felt that feeling, not as the creator of this work but as the consumer of it.
I’m not sure if it’s the medium or the time commitment, but I don’t think I have that emotion as a consumer of stories with the written word nearly as much. Take, for example, a tragic incident that’s mentioned just briefly in the first episode of the Tiger King, that produced some of my favorite writing ever: the Zanesville Zoo escape of 2011.
The quick and dirty synopsis: An Ohio man had an extensive collection of exotic animals (more than 50 in all), not unlike any of the characters in the Tiger King, and one October day in 2011, he set them free right before he shot himself in the head. The animals were a liability, and law enforcement had to hunt them down.
In 2012, there was a magazine-related arms race that now feels like a thing of the past: two talented writers, both named Chris, chasing the same story for two leading men’s magazines, Esquire and GQ. This was not like rival papers showing up to do news coverage on the day-of; no, this was the stuff magazine writers dream of, the kind of story that makes them lace up their boots with purpose. And so the normal pressure of thorough reporting and crafting a compelling story that does justice to the moment is ramped up tenfold, as your main competition is in the same town of 25,000, talking to same limited number of players in this crazy story.
The story of the dueling stories’ creation is almost as good as the writing itself, which is saying a lot. These are some of the best magazine stories written in 2012, period. I had read the stories years ago, but when I returned to graduate school, they were the source of one of my favorite exercises in all my years of formalized education. It was simply a close reading of both stories, a dissection of what makes them work, and using them as a way to think about storytelling and authorial choices more generally. It’s a rare opportunity, because when a great magazine story comes to our attention, we never get to see the five, ten, fifteen other ways the writer and editors considered telling us the story. We get their best foot forward; we get what their collective wisdom and tastes and skills deem to be the most optimal version of the story. Maybe one day, we’ll see a section of an earlier draft in a writer’s memoir or something, but that’s about it. Here, we get one event, the facts of which, while crazy, are fairly straightforward and not in dispute. So then it becomes a matter of execution: the writers’ sensibilities, access to sources, structure, scope, altitude, word choice, introductions, kickers, and, ultimately, personal preference. The writing class exercise I so loved was ultimately a debate: those who favored the GQ story on one side of the room, those who favored Esquire on the other, and questions of craft were presented and debated. No objective right or wrong, just budding writers studying the playbooks of some of the game’s best.
If you’ve binged Tiger King, and you’re craving a continuation of superb exotic animals stories, these are the articles for you. If you’ve ever told a story, and more precisely ever thought about the art and science of storytelling, these are most definitely the articles for you. Either way, these should be added to your quarantine/isolation/social distancing to-do list.
In alphabetical order, Esquire is up first. It’s a testament to the powerfully written introduction. Chris Jones starts his account like this:
The horses knew first. Terry Thompson kept dozens of them on his farm just west of Zanesville, Ohio, a suffering river town and the seat of Muskingum County. Most of the living things in Zanesville had been born in Zanesville, or in the county at least; Thompson was one of the few importers. He had a particular eye for the unwanted. His horses weren’t pretty animals except that they were horses: worn-out chestnuts, muddy grays, a semihandsome paint named Joe. There was even a donkey and a fat little pit pony in the mix, and now they were together in the pasture, more tightly packed than usual, running in a wide circle. They were rolling almost, the bunch of them moving slowly at first and now finding their old legs, picking up speed like starlings, like the bands of a hurricane.
A neighbor, a sixty-four-year-old retired schoolteacher named Sam Kopchak, first saw Thompson’s horses sprinting around their hilly pasture, just on the other side of the wire fence that ran between their properties. Kopchak was on his way up the slope from the little white house he shares with his eighty-four-year-old mother, Dolores, to retrieve his own horse, a pinto named Red, from his small field out back. It was fifteen or twenty minutes before five o’clock, two hours before dark, and Kopchak wanted to bring Red into his barn for the night. He was a new horse owner, and Red was his only horse — that late Tuesday afternoon, October 18, 2011, marked only their ninth day of shared company — but he knew enough about horses to know that they don’t normally run in circles, not by the dozens, around and around. There was a bad storm blowing in, but bad storms had blown into Zanesville before, and the horses had never torn after one another like that, kicking up the earth.
There is a lyricism to Jones’s introduction, an elongation and drawing out of the suspense, a heightening of the tension, that is nothing shorting of masterful. I’m hooked. I want to know more. I couldn’t stop reading if I tried.
Try for yourself:
Then there’s GQ’s version, and it is likewise a testament, not to a strong introduction, but to something earlier in the attention-grabbing order of operations: the headline. “18 Tigers, 17 Lions, 8 Bears, 3 Cougars, 2 Wolves, 1 Baboon, 1 Macaque, and 1 Man Dead in Ohio.” I’m in; tell me more.
Whereas Jones’s introduction seems to elongate and stretch out time, Chris Heath’s is more staccato, to the point, which makes a lot of sense once you realize the approach that each writer decided on for his story. Stylistic differences aside, check out where Heath’s story starts:
Part 1: Fifty-one Deaths
A little before five o’clock on the evening of October 18, 2011, as the day began to ebb away, a retired schoolteacher named Sam Kopchak left the home he shared with his 84-year-old mother and headed into the paddock behind their house to attend to the horse he’d bought nine days earlier. Red, a half-Arabian pinto, was acting skittish and had moved toward the far corner of the field. On the other side of the flimsy fence separating them from his neighbor Terry Thompson’s property, Kopchak noticed that Thompson’s horses seemed even more agitated. They were circling, and in the center of their troubled orbit there was some kind of dark shape. Only when the shape broke out of the circle could Kopchak see that it was a black bear.
Kopchak wasn’t overly alarmed by this sight, unexpected as it was, maybe because the bear wasn’t too big as black bears go, and maybe because it was running away from him. He knew what he’d do: put Red in the barn, go back to the house, report what he’d seen. This plan soon had to be revised. He and Red had taken only a few steps toward the barn when Kopchak saw something else, close by, just ahead of them on the other side of the fence. Just sitting there on the ground, facing their way. A fully grown male African lion.
Read the full scope of Heath’s piece here:
Lewis Carroll once wrote, “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Thrown off casually, it doesn’t always sound like such helpful advice, especially for a writer, who can pretty much create a beginning out of anything. But, maybe these dueling stories show that Carroll had it right all along: Just begin at the beginning. On that, the Chrises seem to agree.
More from the Tiger King
I admit it: I came late to the Tiger King compared to the earliest adopters. But know this: We were all sleeping on this story. New York magazine ran an incredible article by Robert Moor which literally covers everything you could possibly learn from all seven hours of the Netflix series in a fraction of the time. But get this: The old-fashioned magazine treatment of the story is still able to include information and details not covered in the docu-series; I learned new information after reading the story. It’s a great piece of reporting, and it’s worth your time.
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