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Tiger King explained: Meet Joe Exotic, the latest Netflix star

Tiger King on Netflix
(Image credit: Netflix)

Tiger King, Netflix's new documentary series about wildcat collector Joe Exotic, is getting a ton of social media buzz. The show, which premiered March 20, is being described as even more bonkers than the real world is right now — which is saying a lot. 

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is everyone's Netflix obsession du jour, following in the footsteps of Love Is Blind and The Circle. If you haven't watched Tiger King yet (or even know it existed until this moment), you probably have a lot of questions. And we're here to answer them.

Tiger King: What's going on here?

Tiger King is a seven-episode true crime docu-series centered on "Joe Exotic," an infamous collector of giant cats such as tigers and lions that he kept at a "zoo" in Oklahoma. His other wildcat-related money-making ventures included using tiger cubs as props in magic shows and selling animal-themed merchandise.

The docu-series focuses heavily on Joe's extremely antagonistic relationship with his nemesis, Carole Baskin, an animals rights activist and founder of Big Cat Rescue. Joe accused Carole of murdering her husband and feeding him to her big cats, and later tried to pay someone to murder her.

Tiger King also examines the entire exotic animal business, its eccentric cast of characters and the  jaw-dropping scandals associated with it (including a drug lord, polygamy and cults!). 

Tiger King: Who is Joe Exotic?

"Joe Exotic" is the name used by Joseph Maldonado-Passage (born Joseph Schreibvogel). Cast out by his family for being gay, he drove his car off a cliff and broke his back. While completing therapy in Florida, he met the manager of Lion Country Safari, who would bring home baby animals that Joe would play with.

Eventually, Exotic used settlement funds after his brother, Garold Wayne, died in a car accident to purchase a pet store. He then traveled around showcasing big cats at shopping malls. That eventually led to Exotic buying a horse farm and turning it into a private zoo that he named The Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma.

Exotic also hosted a YouTube channel called Joe Exotic TV that gave viewers a virtual tour of his "zoo." In the 2000s, as the zoo and his videos gained popularity, he expanded his business offerings into merchandise and restaurants.

Then, in 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture suspended Exotic’s license and issue him a $25,000 fine for various violations, including: unsanitary conditions at the zoo, hitting animals and failing to give the big cats proper veterinary care.

Exotic's breeding practices also came under fire from activist groups, led by Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue. 

Tiger King: Who is Carole Baskin? Why does Joe hate her?

Carole Baskin is the founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue, which provided new homes to tigers, lions and other wildcats bred in captivity. Baskin was an ardent animal rights activist who crusaded against exotic animal collectors, including Joe Exotic. In 2011, Baskin sued Exotic for trademark infringement and won a $1 million settlement. That bankrupted Exotic, further inflaming tensions between them. 

As retaliation, Exotic accused Baskin of murdering her husband, Don Lewis. Lewis, with whom Baskin had founded Big Cat Rescue, mysteriously disappeared in 1997 and was never heard from again. Lewis' family suspected Baskin of killing him and feeding him to her big cats, but Baskin has always maintained her innocence and she's never been charged.

Tiger King: Who are all these other weird characters?

Tiger King also prominently features Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who runs his own big cat zoo in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. According to the docu-series, Exotic basically followed Antle practices in running his park. Antle has been accused of running a cult filled with young women, which he denies. 

The docuseries also features Exotic's husbands and partners. The first is John Finlay, who got a tattoo reading "Private Property of Joe Exotic." However, they were never officially married. They held a three-way wedding ceremony with Travis Maldonado. In the show, several zoo employees say that neither Finlay nor Maldonado were gay (and Finlay went on to marry a female employee). 

In 2017, Maldonado accidentally shot himself in the head and died. A couple months later, Joe wed Dillon Passage. They remain married to this day.

Tiger King: Does this involve murder?

So, after Exotic went bankrupt, he partnered with businessman named Jeff Lowe and they put the zoo under Lowe's name to protect it from Baskin. But Lowe ended up pushing Exotic out and claiming Exotic had embezzled his money to fund his political campaigns.

With things not going well for Exotic, he allegedly asked former strip club owner James Garretson for hit man recommendations. He also allegedly offered another employee, Allen Glover, $5,000 to kill Baskin. When that plot failed, and when Lowe pushed him out of the zoo, Exotic then allegedly shot and killed his aging tigers and sold off some cubs, then fled to Florida.

But Garretson had turned on Exotic and was serving as an informant to law enforcement. Lowe and Glover also worked with federal agents against Exotic. In 2018, while Exotic was working as a dishwasher in Florida, he was arrested by the feds.

Tiger King: Did Joe Exotic run for president and governor?

Yes, Exotic ran for president in 2016 as an independent candidate. Obviously, he lost. Watch John Oliver make fun of him on HBO's Last Week Tonight:

In 2018, Exotic ran for governor of Oklahoma as a Libertarian. His campaign manager, Joshua Dial, is featured heavily in the show. Exotic lost but managed to get a respectable 19 percent of the vote.

Tiger King: Where are Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin 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. He is currently serving a 22-year sentence in federal prison.

In January 2020, Exotic said in a statement, "I still maintain my innocence and look forward in the upcoming days to my attorneys filing my appeal and moving on to the next step in this nightmare.”

Meanwhile, Baskin still runs Big Cat Rescue and told Vanity Fair she's found peace since Exotic went to prison. Kate McKinnon is set to portray Baskin in a limited series based on Tiger King.