I have a few things I want to say about the Netflix documentary series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, so if you haven’t watched it you should stop reading beyond this paragraph if you want to experience it firsthand, but a word of caution, if you are emotionally or mentally triggered by someone dying (out of view of the camera), you need to reconsider watching it or at least perhaps tread lightly with someone there to support you.
I do hate to use the word “spoiler” in this situation because it feels disgusting, disingenuous, disconnected from what I’m actually going to talk about. It feeds the media spectacle and further removes us from the dark reality that unfolded, ultimately blurring our ability to discern the tragedy and trauma. I’m not so much interested in the show itself, more so a victim of circumstance in it.
This post is going to be about Travis Maldonado. A disclaimer first and foremost, I did not know him, I have no information to present other than what has been publicly put forth by his mom Cheryl, his sisters Ashley and Danielle, and the documentary itself. There is a lot of wild shit to talk about regarding the show, but when Travis died, that became the most impactful event and tragedy this documentary could possibly put forth outside of the animal abuse. In fact, the documentary should have been about Travis, not Joe.
Travis is most certainly important to his family and friends who grieved his loss in 2017, but Travis is also important because he represents a group of young men that are rarely ever discussed or depicted through a widespread televised medium. Caleb Diehl is another good example of what I’m about to discuss, so afterwards go Google Caleb’s story and mysterious disappearance if you are not familiar with it.
Over the last decade of being involved in behavioral health, and of course from my own personal experiences with a mental health condition, I can attest to the fact that sometimes people suffering from or struggling with behavioral health issues, whether we are talking about a mental health condition or a substance use disorder, become victims not just of the things they are struggling with, but also of other people who take advantage of them in their vulnerable state.
From the documentary and from the things I’ve seen publicly stated by Travis’s family, I believe this to be the other tragedy of his story, second to the fact that he died in a terrible accident, viewable on the documentary itself – making it all the more traumatic for everyone who witnesses it. Remember his family watched the show, relived his death, and some of Travis’s family had never before seen the security camera footage of his death.
Sometimes individuals with a mental health condition or a substance use disorder (formerly known as addiction), find themselves in very difficult situations where they become extremely vulnerable to outside influence, persuasion, manipulation, coercion, psychological or physical abuse, among other things. This is compounded when they are also desperate for something they want or need, particularly when that thing is an illicit substance that they have become dependent upon.
If you’ve seen the documentary, you know that Travis was identified as having a meth “addiction” and used marijuana heavily. According to his older sister in a Facebook post, Travis was portrayed fairly accurately in the documentary, so I can only ascertain that he did truly struggle with substance use.
It’s a private matter and I honestly don’t believe it’s really all that important for reasons I’ll state in a bit, but Travis’s sexual orientation remains uncertain and people continue to publicly discuss it. He proclaimed to be straight and this was supported by coworkers who stated he frequently slept with women who worked at the zoo. He was, however as we all know, in a relationship and marriage with another man, Joe Exotic.
Again, this detail is not important in my opinion, but due to the fact that people have discussed it a lot and have inquired as to why the term “bisexual” was never brought up in the documentary, I will say it’s certainly possible he was bisexual, the vast majority of people within the LGBTQ, are actually some variant of bisexual. They make up a significant portion of that population.
In a 2011 American study by Gary Gates and the Williams Institute, some 8-10 million Americans identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. An additional 25 million Americans stated they had engaged in same-sex experiences, 76% of those people identified themselves as straight. While the majority of lesbian women and gay men eventually come out publicly or to their friends and family, when it comes to self-identified bisexual Americans, the study showed that only 28% of them ever “come out” publicly.
Whether or not Travis was “happy” in his relationship with Joe is uncertain, all I have to go on is the documentary footage and his family’s public statements following the airing of the show. Some people say he was, others say he wasn’t. It’s this “relationship” that I want to discuss next.
This is merely my opinion, but I believe the free-spirited and sometimes wreckless Travis has become the most prominent example of a victim of a process known as “grooming.”
Grooming is a process by which a person says and does things to attract another person to them, which heavily revolves around building trust, favor, and gratitude, but eventually leads to manipulation, coercion, and even threats and blackmail if the victim attempts to separate themselves from the “groomer.”
Part of this grooming process often includes money, gifts, favors, and other methods of flattery. Not everyone who finds themselves on the receiving end of this grooming process is oblivious to what is taking place. Some have even purposefully put themselves into the situation because they like the attention. Some are even using the groomer and tricking them, enacting a strange game of cat and mouse, where both become victims of each other.
However, the majority of people who find themselves being groomed are often unaware, especially in the beginning. Typically they are like Travis, looking for belonging, direction, support, attention, connection, a change or a new start.
Victims of grooming are often young males, likely due to the fact they are less guarded, less cautious, and less likely to perceive themselves as potential victims. They are usually under the age of 21 and unfortunately can even be very young children in cases of pedophilia.
Those who are groomers are almost always older than the victim, most of the time drastically older, which they use to their advantage. They are typically financially better off than the victim, can provide a financially stable support system, give them shelter, guidance, employment, food, expensive gifts, the list goes on and on.
Due to the fact that grooming victims are young and often troubled or struggling with their mental and emotional states, they can be easily manipulated, especially if the manipulative behavior includes money, objects, or substances the victim wants or believes he needs. The more the victim wants or believes he needs what the groomer is offering him, the more easily and deeply manipulated he will become.
Groomers almost always target individuals they are sexually attracted to, but the victims sexuality is less important as the groomer gets what they want through the control of manipulation, coercion, and above all else making the victim feel as though they are indebted to the groomer.
Aside from physical attraction or substance use, they may also look for young men who appear to be poor, less educated, rebellious, wreckless, socially rejected, troubled and struggling, abandoned, lonely, without purpose or direction in life, or homeless.
This grooming process almost always culminates in requests for sexual favors. If this is the fate that befell Travis, I must say it is the first time I have ever seen the grooming process culminate in marriage to the groomer, but I suppose there’s a first time for everything.
I genuinely hope that I am wrong about the predicament that Travis was in, I sincerely hope that he actually wanted to be in a relationship with Joe and that he was actually happy and content with where he was and what he had. But honestly, my knowledge of this type of behavior and my experiences in dealing with manipulative groomers, my observations of Travis’s behavior in the documentary and the public statements from his family, make me believe otherwise.
The premature ending of Travis’s life is the real tragedy of The Tiger King, the real injustice in all the chaos that unfolded. I’m not intending to lay blame on anyone involved with the zoo, but his death never should have happened.
Additonal Links of Interest
Travis Talking About His Favorite Animal at the Zoo (skip ahead to the 3:12 mark)
Travis Maldonado Footage from JoeExoticTV Part One
Travis Maldonado Footage from JoeExoticTV Part Two
Ashley’s Memorial Video for Her Brother Travis
JoeExoticTV’s Memorial Services for Travis Maldonado
40-Second Travis YouTube Memorial Video
4:30 Travis YouTube Memorial Video
JoeExoticTv Memorial Video to Travis
Travis Shooting Stuff