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Episode 1: Realizing You’ve Been to Joe Exotic’s Zoo

Netflix’s 'Tiger King’ Hits Close to Home for Kansas Citian

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Above image credit: Kailee Karr (right) poses at G.W. Zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, in 2007.

If it wasn’t for the stay-at-home order, Kansas City-based comedian Kailee Karr would be on dive bar stages and maintaining her position as a bit of a regular telling jokes at The Mockingbird Lounge in Kansas City, Kansas. Perhaps Karr would be refereeing matches as her alter-ego “Woke Hogan” for Wrestle Your Friends, a queer performance art collective which hosts bi-monthly underground wrestling events.

Kailee Karr as 'Woke Hogan.'
Karr as ‘Woke Hogan.’ (Courtesy | Kailee Karr)

Instead, the 27-year-old originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is sitting #funemployed on the couch — for now. And before you ask, Karr has seen the Netflix documentary “Tiger King.” 

Watching the first episode, though, Karr recognized a tiger cage and immediately called family members for answers. 

This is her story.

Flatland: Could there have been better timing for Netflix to drop “Tiger King,” with everyone at home watching TV due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Karr: Right? I’m not a big conspiracy theory person, but it was convenient timing. But honestly it’s such a good documentary that it would have gone viral anyways.

Flatland: Paste Magazine said the documentary is the perfect example of “Horror Through the Veil of Comedy.” It does seem like there are some seriously bad people in the documentary, but at the same time you kind of like them.

Karr: They are caricatures of themselves. You’re distant enough from them to where you can laugh at them. But when you really sit there and think about it, it’s more like, OK just because they are outlandish doesn’t mean they are not doing terrible things.

Flatland: These are the people who you experienced firsthand as a high schooler?

Karr: Yeah, I did. I didn’t even put it together until I was watching it. I was sitting there and I was like wait a second, why am I having this weird, uncomfortable, unsettling feeling as I’m watching this. Suddenly it all clicked and I saw an image of the cage and I was like wait — I’ve been there. I texted my sister and asked if she remembered if we stopped there on a family road trip from Iowa to Texas, going through Oklahoma. We stopped because we saw a giant billboard that said “Exotic Animals.” I had a brain blast moment and my sister went back through her Facebook and found some pictures of us there. 

Flatland: How did people react when you posted those pictures on your Instagram story?

Karr: I woke up to like over 30 private messages from people the next day being like, ‘Oh my god, what? Did you meet (Joe Exotic)?’ It was definitely one of the most reacted to posts I’ve made.

Kailee Karr performs regularly at open mics and booked gigs across the metro.
Karr performs regularly at open mics and booked gigs across the metro. (Courtesy | Kailee Karr)

Flatland: Do you remember anything specific about the visit to G.W. Zoo?

Karr: We were in the car, my mom was like, ‘We are here, we should stop.’ I think she just wanted an excuse to get us out of the car with her. We stopped and my biggest memory, walking in, was that it was seriously so sad. Eerie, sad vibes. There weren’t a lot of people there and I think most zoos might feel that way if other zoos didn’t have so much distance between you and the animals, whereas here you are right next to them in, like, a coat hanger cage. It was really weird and sad and all the people working there were sort of just sulking around the grounds. There was no tour, there was no checking out a habitat. It was: Here are sad birds and tigers walking around. 

Flatland: Zoo seems like a pretty loose term here.

Karr: Yeah. I’m even uncomfortable with zoos now. It was like, ‘Oh fun, exotic animals, that will be really cool to see.’ Then when we got there it was like, ‘Oh wait no, this is really sad.’ It was just like the documentary. The idea of it was so outlandish to the point that it sounded a bit fun, but when you actually think about it, it’s pretty clear it’s horrible. Everything was smelly and muddy. There were no walkways, just grass everywhere. It felt like those traveling carnivals at the hometown fair.

Flatland: If this thing becomes a film based on true events, Will Ferrell has to play that dude with the long blonde hair (Bhagavan “Doc” Antle).

Karr: Dax Shepard has to play Joe Exotic. 

Flatland: Did you talk to your mom about her decision to take you to the “zoo”?

Karr: Yeah. There’s a little bit of disagreement looking back at it because none of us want to be blamed.

Flatland: Yeah, you gave this guy money.

Karr: We want to believe that one of us was the moral person that was like, ‘We shouldn’t do this.’ Realistically, we were probably all a little bit curious. I specifically remember my mom thinking it would be cute if I would go play with the baby tigers. You had to pay extra to go play with the baby tigers and she was saying how cute and fun it would be. I remember being like, no all I want to do is get out of here. 

Flatland: Sure, sure.

Karr: Well when we got there, we weren’t sure if it was open until finally we found someone to let us in. We bought tickets, then 20 minutes later they told us they were closing the park. My mom is a classic Midwestern white lady mom, so she went in to talk to someone and I remember it being Joe Exotic, but there is a disagreement among the family as to who she went in to yell at. 

She did, however, go back and forth with one of the staff members.

Flatland: You saw it in person, you watched the doc, what are you taking away from “Tiger King?

Karr: If there’s a way to make money from something, there can be corruption in it. If people get a taste of power or some sort of fame it will ruin people’s lives. It can spiral real fast. It’s a good lesson on lower-class white folk in the Midwest. It’s what happens when you give a little taste of fame and money to someone who has been stripped of it their whole life.

Flatland: And then you throw drugs, mental health and an alleged murder plot into the mix. 

Karr: It’s a doozy. You can quote me on that.

Flatland: It sure is. Can we expect some “Tiger King” material once you’re back behind the mic?

Karr: Oh yeah. I’m just trying to avoid as much as possible making any horrible corona-related jokes. “Tiger King” seems like a good route to go. Maybe I’ll do a Joe Exotic character, that could be fun. He’s ripe for the picking.

Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park did not respond to Flatland’s request for comments. 

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