Warning: Spoilers for The Tiger King are ahead. But nothing could spoil seeing it with your own eyes.
Lions, tigers, and murders, oh my! And that’s only the beginning of the wild ride that is Netflix’s newest streaming docuseries, The Tiger King. The series, which is streaming now, follows two key players: Joe Exotic (an infamous giant cat collector and zoo keeper) and his nemesis Carole Baskin (the founder of Big Cat Rescue). Joe Exotic spent most of his life breeding and holding wild cats in captivity for profit, which included using rare tiger cubs as props in magic shows, creating a giant off-road “zoo” (located in Wynnewood, Oklahoma) for the general public to come observe the animals up-close and personal, and selling animal-themed merchandise like “best-selling” Tiger King leopard print underwear.
Joe Exotic isn’t the only one who made a business from trapping wild cats (many of which are rare and endangered). Another eccentric fellow by the name of Bhagavan “Doc” Antle also runs his own wild cat zoo in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In fact, according to the documentary, Exotic tried his best to emulate Antle's best practices so that he could run a similar park. The Tiger King, co-directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, aims to uncover the nearly unbelievable world of the exotic animal business, and to uncover the outlandish, illegal, and cruel things Exotic did to be a part of it.
Firstly, Who Is Joe Exotic?
Joe Exotic (whose real last name is Schreibvogel, although he now goes by Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage) grew up as a misfit in Kansas. Ostracised for being gay by his own family, Exotic drove his car off a cliff and broke his back. He went to live in Florida for therapy, and it’s there that he met his neighbour, the manager of Lion Country Safari. The neighbour would sometimes bring home cubs and baby monkeys to bottle feed, and Exotic was invited over to spend time with them. He immediately fell in love with wild animals, and felt like being around them was his calling — although even as a young man, Exotic claimed had always shown an affinity toward animals.
After spending some time traveling around wild cats and showcasing them at places like shopping malls, Exotic bought a farm and named it after his deceased brother: The Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park. People could come visit and not only see wild cats, but hold and play with the baby cubs.
Exotic also hosted “shows” on YouTube called Joe Exotic TV, where you could visit the zoo yourself from your own computer screen. As business grew and video views racked up into the millions, Exotic expanded his brand and opened up a bar and a pizza joint. Things were going well. Until they weren't.
So, What Did Joe Exotic Do?
To put it simply, Exotic didn't take proper care of his animals or his zoo (and that’s putting it lightly). For instance, in 1999, when transporting a flock of rescued emus, some escaped and Exotic handled the situation by shooting at least six of the birds. In 2004, he made headlines when animal rights groups pointed out he was holding a handicapped lion cub whose condition was most likely a result of inbreeding, which is irresponsible and dangerous.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily suspended Exotic’s license and nailed him with a $25,000 fine for all his violations. These included unsanitary conditions at the zoo (leaving faeces around and not cleaning up after the animals), irregular feeding times, hitting animals, and failing to give the wildcats proper veterinary care. More allegations came out claiming many of his animals were deformed due to inbreeding and not giving the moms enough healthy food while pregnant.
What Happened Between Joe Exotic & Carole Baskin?
One person in particular was tracking Exotic’s every move: Carole Baskin. Baskin was a huge animal rights activist and made it her sole mission to take down exotic animal collectors, especially Exotic.
The two were always at odds, but things got heated when Exotic began using her Big Cat Rescue name and logo in order to advertise his own business. She sued him in 2011 for trademark infringement. But it obviously didn’t stop there — Exotic did, after all, embody everything Baskin detested.
After losing the legal battle with Baskin, Exotic owed her $1 million, which bankrupted him and ignited an even bigger fire between the two. Exotic became increasingly paranoid that she was sending animal rights activists to mess with him or spy on his operations. On YouTube, he even threatened Baskin’s life, telling his audience that he would shoot her dead if she kept going after him.
In 2015, Exotic met Jeff Lowe, a shady guy who stopped by to purchase a tiger cub. Exotic and Lowe ended up getting married (by this point, Exotic had many husbands/partners — simultaneously, even), and Lowe put the zoo under his name to protect Exotic’s assets from Baskin. After awhile though, they stopped getting along. In addition, Baskin was still pursuing the $1 million Exotic owed her. Things were starting to really fall apart by this point.
Exotic then allegedly asked James Garretson (a former strip club owner who opened an exotic-animal themed bed and breakfast and came to Exotic to buy alligators) if he knew any hit men. Exotic allegedly said he’d pay $10,000 to have Baskin murdered. The claim is that Exotic then asked the same thing of a new zoo employee named Ashley Webster. She ended up calling Baskin and warning her about Exotic’s plans. Garretson eventually became an informant, giving a USFWS agent intel on Exotic’s movements.
Exotic allegedly offered another employee, Allen Glover, $5,000 to kill Baskin. Garretson heard about it and immediately reported back to the agent. Glover didn’t end up killing her, though. Exotic allegedly tried again, and (again) failed to get Baskin murdered. To downsize the zoo, he allegedly shot and killed his ageing tigers and sold numerous cubs (some of the animal sales, specifically baby lemurs, were allegedly falsified as “donations”). He gave up on the murder, the zoo — all of it. He went to start over in Florida. Exotic’s former husband, Lowe, took over the zoo. Exotic maintains his innocence on these charges.
In 2018, Exotic was living in Gulf Breeze, Florida, working as a dishwasher, when he was arrested by federal agents.
Where Is Joe Exotic Now?
In 2019, Exotic was found guilty on 19 counts, including hiring hit men to murder Baskin at least twice, killing tigers, and general fraud. On January 22, the now 57-year-old zoo keeper, was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison. His release date is yet to be decided.