TO the outside world Joe Exotic was the eccentric zookeeper who owned 1200 lions, tigers and bears in the middle of Oklahoma.
But behind the “gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet,” as he liked to refer to himself, lay a far more sinister character.
For two decades he was a local celebrity who bred hybrid big cats including ligers – the offspring of a male lion and female tiger – at his roadside zoo in Wynnewood.
He called himself the Tiger King, made 28 songs, sold merchandise from branded t-shirts to condoms and opened a pizza restaurant called ‘Zooters’ – a male version of Hooters.
He also re-homed Michael Jackson’s alligators from the Neverland Ranch after the singer’s death – before they ended up being boiled alive in a fire.
But his animal kingdom began to tumble down amid claims of cruelty, abuse and lawsuits.
Joseph Maldonado-Passage’s bizarre exploits, often stranger than fiction, are now the subject of a Netflix true crime docuseries, Tiger King: murder, mayhem and madness.
Here we reveal how Joe, 57, went from quirky entertainer to serving 22 years behind bars for trafficking and killing animals – and paying a hitman to murder a rival.
From shooting birds to taming tigers
Joe’s fascination with animals started as a child when he ran around shooting birds with BB guns before “healing” by injecting them with water.
He was born in 1963 and grew up with four siblings on a farm in rural Kansas. He wasn’t close to them, apart from his older brother Garold.
When one of them outed him as gay to their dad, Francis, he made Joe promise that he wouldn’t attend his funeral.
Joe was distraught and tried to end his life by crashing his car. He survived and later bought a pet shop with his first husband, Brian Rhyne, and Garold.
But after his brother was killed in a car accident in 1997, Joe bought 16 acres of land and lined it with nine cages. It opened as The Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park, with a deer, a buffalo and a mountain lion.
It wasn’t long before owners dropped tigers, monkeys and other rare creatures to the sanctuary.
Then in 2000 he got his first tigers, Tess and Tickles who went on to have cubs.
The following year Brian died following an infection. By this point the zoo was home to 89 big cats and 1,100 other creatures and drawing large crowds.
The illusionist becomes king
He toured the country as an “illusionist” with his travelling petting zoo but he was also gaining more attention from animal rights groups and safety enforcers as he’d sometimes leave kids in cages with animals.
Joe’s wealth grew by appealing for donations and sponsorships for the animals’ maintenance, as well as trading exotic creatures, including his cross-breeds. Former staff members claim he pocketed between $1,500 and $10,000 for hybrid cubs.
But the authorities were onto him and issued fines for illegal animal trading and not providing them with adequate care.
PETA also captured undercover footage of staff kicking and hitting the creatures.
Cult-like zoo and staff squalor
Joe found most of his employees on Craigslist and they were a mix of homeless people, drug addicts and some were said to have arrest warrants in other states. They lived in often insect-infested trailers on site, working six-day weeks for very little money.
He got some hooked on drugs and threatened to kick others back out onto the streets or cut off their food if they disobeyed him. Workers complained that Joe was a controlling and abusive boss and many felt they couldn’t leave. Those that were able to said it was like a cult.
Staff were reported to throw live chickens and cats into big cat coops or shoot them for fun. Other animals starved to death and Joe was seen running over emus so that he could sell their bones.
De-throned by ‘Mother Theresa of cats’
At the same time, Joe had found a nemesis: Carole Baskin, the “Mother Theresa of cats” and the owner of a big cat sanctuary in Tampa, Florida. Though she has a controversial background, she maintains she wants to end tiger captivity.
The animal rights activist was critical of Joe, his zoo and other parks like it. He in return would publicly threaten her on his online show and on one occasion filled her mailbox with venomous snakes.
Their bitter rivalry escalated to new heights when Joe Exotic tried to hire a hitman for $3,000 to kill Carole.
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But the man he’d been trying to pay to kill was in fact an undercover FBI agent.
Joe Exotic was arrested in 2018 and sentenced in January this year for attempted murder for hire and multiple wildlife violations, including shooting dead five tigers.
At the end of his trial, the lead prosecutor remarked: “The Tiger King: that’s how [Joe] has marketed himself and lived his life. But here’s the thing with kings — they start to believe they’re above the law.”
Tiger King: murder, mayhem and madness is available on Netflix now.
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