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Wild Facts About Joe Exotic, The Tiger King

Andrea Papillon

Meet Joe Exotic, an attention-seeking exotic-animal zoo owner who flaunts his gay polygamous lifestyle, platinum-blonde mullet, and thirst for revenge. As the subject of Netflix’s hit docudrama, Tiger King, Joe Exotic is a huge hit with binge-watchers, but the real story is even more insane than the crazy TV show. Here are peak Florida facts about the circus that is the “Tiger King.”


Joe Exotic Facts

1. He’s Not in Kansas Anymore

Joe Exotic has become one of the most, um, unique people in the world, but when he was born, he was just a normal kid. Exotic grew up on a farm in Kansas with the usual suspects in the barnyard: cows, chickens, and horses. Exotic and his four siblings used to sneak in wildlife (cue newborn porcupines and antelopes) as “pets.”

2. You Need a License to Fish

It seems like Exotic’s parents, of German ancestry, could have benefited from a license in nurturing. Exotic was the middle child of five, with two older brothers and two younger sisters. According to Exotic, the kids never heard “I love you” from their parents. He said they were viewed as child laborers.

3. Name Collector

Exotic’s real last name is Schreibvogel, a curse for a scrawny, closeted-gay kid in the macho southwest. People constantly mispronounced it, and kids tormented him. After Exotic came out, he assumed the last names of his ‘husbands’, even if their unions weren’t legal. Joe Maldonado-Passage is the closest to an actual surname he’s ever willingly assumed.

4. Don’t Call Him Late for Dinner

Exotic has more than enough assumed names and aliases for this lifetime. First, he was Joe Maldonado, later hyphenating that to include Passage. He also took on stage names when he performed his magic shows: going by either Aaron Alex, or Cody Ryan. Most famously, he crowned himself “the Tiger King” in his low-budget reality show.

5. Not Your Garden-Variety Pet Lover

As a child, Exotic desperately wanted to be a vet. He was certainly a self-taught varmint caregiver, treating those baby porcupines, and antelopes as ‘pets.’ He also ‘fostered’ baby raccoons and squirrels in cages, and he eventually took a turn at raising show pigeons. But when little Joe wanted to add snakes to the mix, his mom finally put her foot down.

6.  He Broke It, He Tried to Fix It

When Exotic finished his daily chores on the farm, he “relaxed” by doing something so disturbing it’s impossible to ever forget. Little Joe would grab his BB peashooter and took out sparrows. Sound heartless? You betcha. But Exotic said he only wounded the birds so he could play vet to fix them. Um, that doesn’t make it better?

7. Monster in the Closet

Exotic said he suffered a horrific incident at the tender age of five. Apparently, he was assaulted—repeatedly—by an older boy who remains anonymous to this day. Exotic said the incident happened in the farmhouse where he grew up, vividly recalling how he’d prop open a bathroom drawer to block the door.

8. Revenge Meets Fantasy

Figures from Exotic’s past—including a high school principal—don’t recall this, but Exotic claimed that when other kids tormented him, he served up an ice cold dish of revenge. Exotic (apparently) spread nails all over the school parking lot, damaging the tires of a “hundred cars.” He said the tough kids never hurt him again.

9. Cop Shop King

It’s not every closeted-gay, tormented teenager who can sweet-talk his way into a job as police chief—but Exotic made it happen right after graduating high school. He swaggered into the cop shop in Eastvale, Texas, and he came out the top dog! Caveat: it was a ghost town with barely 500 residents, but who’s counting?

10. 1985 Was His 1984

After Exotic became Eastvale’s top cop, he found himself a girlfriend named Kim. They lived together, but Exotic betrayed his lover constantly. He secretly patronized queer clubs in Dallas until his shame and paranoia became unbearable. He now calls 1985 “the bad year,” when (he says) he crashed his cop car at high speed in a suicide attempt.

11. Oh No He Didn’t

Ask any citizen who met Joe Exotic in the teeny town of Eastvale, Texas, the cops he worked with, even his living family members about Exotic’s supposed suicide attempt, and you will hear crickets. Nobody but Exotic can remember the incident happening. He did offer a photo of a demolished vehicle once, apparently as proof.

12. Snorkeling for a Cure

Exotic said his (unproven) suicide attempt was a rebirth. He claims he spent nearly two months hospitalized in traction. Afterward, he said he moved to Florida to “participate in an experimental saltwater rehabilitation program.” An ex-boyfriend confirmed that Exotic did move to West Palm Beach—but their only saltwater activity was snorkelling.

13. Lions and Tigers and Rehab, Oh My

Maybe it wasn’t traditional rehab (like anything is traditional with Exotic!) but his spirit was healed by something that would eventually become his whole world. His Florida neighbor knew a guy who worked at a drive-through zoo. The guy would bring over baby lions, and Exotic would sit on his neighbor’s floor, feed, and cuddle the critters. He didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of Joe Exotic’s dark saga. 

14. A Fine Piece of Sass

Bidding adieu to the Sunshine State after a couple of years, Exotic moved back to Texas. He rustled up a job as a security guard at the Round-up Saloon, a cowboy bar for gays. Exotic met a teenaged Brian Rhyne there, and sassy, underage Rhyne had him rounded-up quick. They decided to shack up at a nearby trailer park.

15. Trailer Park Pioneers

You’ve got to give them huge props: Exotic and Rhyne were like pride pioneers in 1980s Texas. They got married in an era where the Wild West mentality still dominated, and gay marriage was considered deeply unholy. That said, the couple also had a dark side. They would snort pink-tinged drugs before barhopping on Saturday nights.

16. I Now Pronounce You Identical-Looking Husbands

It wasn’t legal for two men to walk down the aisle, but it’s not like a little thing called the law ever stopped Exotic from doing what he wanted. He and Rhyne got married at the Round-up, where they’d met. The hubbies wore jeans and boots, and they’d grown out identical horseshoe mustaches and matching mullets.

17. Somewhere Over the Rainbow

After marrying Rhyne, Exotic embarked on a drastic career change. He started working at a pet store by the trailer park. Exotic wanted to buy the store, and his brother, Garold Wayne, came on board as a co-owner. Exotic made sure the clientele knew the store was gay-friendly. He hung a rainbow banner across the storefront, and he sold rainbow t-shirts for dogs.

18. Bad News Out of Gator Alley

October 1997 was an incredibly terrible time for Joe Exotic. His brother, Garold Wayne passed away in a brutal car accident. The traumatized family received a significant financial settlement in the aftermath, but the pain was just too great. Their father called it “blood money,” and he refused to spend it.

19. An Unfulfilled Bucket List

Wayne’s wife and kids wanted to build a soccer field in his memory, but Exotic planted another scheme—whoops, seed. He told the family that Wayne’s unfulfilled bucket list included a dream trip to Africa to “see wild lions,” and (with all the wisdom of a redneck anthropologist) “people with bones in their noses.”

20. From A to Zoo

Exotic’s vision was to bring African wildlife to people like his late brother. With the settlement money, he purchased a horse ranch in Wynnewood, Oklahoma that had seen better days. Exotic and Rhyne planned to make it a rescue animal refuge, officially naming it the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park. But everyone called it the G.W. Zoo. And with that, the stage was set for Exotic’s descent into madness…

21. All the World’s a Cage

Exotic and Rhyne shacked up in a little ranch house on the zoo property. As the years passed, baby animals lived—caged—in the basic abode with them. Exotic kept on adding cages, or building fences within the four small walls, until it became impossible to tell where the human spaces began, and the animals’ caged worlds ended.

22. Plenty of Room at This Inn

Gun-worshipping Exotic could have shot a cannon through his zoo at first. His only animals were a buffalo, mountain lion, bear, and an emu. But, according to Exotic, one crucial phone call changed everything. Local law enforcement contacted him about abandoned and mistreated tigers found in the vicinity. Officials were iffy on tiger rescues, so Exotic got the gig. Spoiler: Law enforcement would not continue to trust Exotic for much longer.

23. They Got Garden Hosed

Exotic provided a haunting description of the mistreated tigers that he rescued. He said their teeth had been filed down completely, exposing their nerves at the root. They were left without food, so they’d been chomping on old, discarded garden hoses—with greenish, dried up scat everywhere.

24. Flaunting His Heroic Underbelly

Self-aggrandizing Exotic must have soaked up the attention he received from local police. He said he received a police escort back to the G.W. Zoo with the rescued tigers, and he and husband Brian carefully removed the gaunt animals, placing them in a cage. Exotic even said he locked himself in the cage with them.

25. This Giftshop Was NSFW

The gift shop at the supposedly ‘family-friendly’ G.W. Zoo was anything but (it reads more like the Chicken Ranch in Vegas!) There was candy with Exotic’s faceprint on it…unappetizing, but innocent enough. But it quickly got NSFW with a questionable line of massage oils and Exotic-approved, um, protection. Looking for Exotic’s face printed on some undies? He had your backside covered there too.

26. Behind Every Good Joe

Everyone who knew Exotic’s first husband agreed that Rhyne was the better half. He could contain Exotic to a certain degree, as Exotic was (and still is) a man who “leaps before he thinks.” By all accounts, their 12-year union was loving and successful. It was only after Rhyne’s sad death that Joe’s mental switch flipped to “Exotic.”

27. For Whom the Bell Tolls

The winter of 2001 was particularly tragic for Exotic. Rhyne was suffering from a deep cough, and terrible pains, serious enough to be hospitalized. His diagnosis was complications due to HIV, with zero chance of recovery. Doctors even told Exotic that pain medication could kill Rhyne. Exotic told doctors to give his husband some relief.

28. Crashed in the Car

It’s disturbing to hear Exotic describe Brian Rhyne’s last moments. Rhyne was discharged from the hospital, and Exotic thought he was taking Rhyne home. But Rhyne collapsed in the parking lot, and Exotic barely got him into their vehicle. Brian passed on in the car, as Exotic’s piercing screams echoed across the asphalt.

29. Quite the Wingman You Got There

Following Brian’s death, Exotic’s flamboyance, and risk-taking went to the next level. He took an interesting path in the grieving process, as evidenced by Floyd Martin, self-proclaimed “gay mayor” of Oklahoma City back in the day. One night, at one of the city’s gay bars, Martin watched Exotic make a dramatic entrance with a leashed tiger.

30. The USDA Would’ve Gone Ballistic

Exotic was always short on funds to properly manage his zoo. He rashly decided to take a full-grown tiger to local flea markets, where he charged thrill-seeking folks $5/pop to have a Polaroid taken with the animal. USDA recommendations limit the safe handling of tigers to cubs under 12 weeks of age.

31. Cuter They Are, Harder We Fall

Exotic’s wacky idea to have people pose with adult male tiger was obviously dangerous. He switched to far cuter baby tigers and hit payday. Exotic began touring his petting zoo around to more and more shopping malls, as word spread like wildfire. But the good times wouldn’t last for long…

32. Making Magic Happen

Johnny Magic was another pivotal figure in the evolution of Joe Exotic. Magic was a popular touring magician when the two met in 2002, and Exotic quickly hitched his petting zoo wagon up to Magic’s mystique. For a while, they made beautiful artifice: Johnny busted out the tricks, and Joe bussed out the beasts.

33. Stolen Magic in a Frito Lay Getaway Car

The time came when Johnny Magic soured on Exotic. Joe performed a sleight of hand, stealing Magic’s tricks and packing a solo petting zoo/magic show into a ’69 Frito-Lay truck (animal musk and residual chip aroma…OMG.) He later “upgraded” to a lowkey Winnebago. But—in his mind—Joe only truly became Exotic after scoring himself a tour bus.

34. Up, Up, and Away

Joe Exotic has, um, a unique look so it won’t surprise you to know that he’s had an incredible amount of facelifts. However, this detail is stomach-churning: An employee said that Exotic would make her shave his side burns. Because of all the surgeries, they ended up behind behind his ears.

35. Counting on a Sheep

There were performance issues with Exotic’s tigers during the magic show, and he dreamt up hare-brained “solutions” to fix them. Hired hand Aaron Stone recalled a tiger getting freaked out by pyrotechnics during the act. Exotic figured the audience was gullible enough to believe that a locally-bought sheep—spray-painted orange with black stripes—would pass for the tiger.

36. Roll out the Barrels

Joe Exotic’s romantic desires turned rougher and riskier. He rolled out a string of men (again, referring to them as ‘husbands,’) who were very young, despite the fact that many proclaimed to be straight. Many of his conquests had troubled backstories and Exotic believed that he provided love and stability at his zoo.

37. Sucker for Punishments

Exotic’s penchant for risky youths had seriously bad side effects. He was ‘married’ to two young men, at separate times, and both attacked him violently during fits of rage. J.C. Hartpence held a gun to Exotic’s head while drunk, (he’s currently serving life for murder) and John Finlay threw Exotic into a wall, sending him to the ER (Exotic had him knocking back steroids.)

38. That Seemed Like a Good Idea When?

The bizarre soap opera that was Exotic’s personal life is utterly insane, but one of the most unhinged details involves an incredibly tacky tattoo that we pray gets removed. Even though Exotic started indulging in revolving-door, polygamous relationships, he staked his claim on one particular partner with a cringey gesture. He paid for a tattoo artist to brand John Finlay with pelvic-area ink that said “PRIVATELY OWNED BY JOE EXOTIC.”

39. Wedding of the Century

The minister probably deemed this wedding “most unusual…” because a more fitting descriptor doesn’t exist. In 2014, Exotic ‘married’ John Finlay and Travis Maldonado in matching magenta shirts at a fluorescent-lit banquet hall in Okie. The minister’s deadpan preamble on polygamous marriage included a biblical interpretation that would make anyone go hmmm…

40. He Was the Wedding Planner

Exotic controlled the whole wedding, documenting it in a 23-minute video. Highlights include some romantic tension like Exotic blowing off his pre-wedding jitters at the local gun store. The most notable guests were his formally attired animals—a jungle cat wearing an American flag bandana, and his tutu-clad monkey.

41. And the Wedding Singer

The polygamous nuptials seem like a fine time to bring up Exotic’s other (suspect) talent: country music superstar. During his illustrious zoo career, Exotic filmed country music videos. And lucky for his polygamous gay wedding guests, Exotic’s music accompanied his unique nuptials. But that’s not exactly the whole story…

42. A Cue From Milli Vanilli

Go figure. The man who got revenge against his teenaged tormenters with roofing nails and made a suicide attempt literally no one else remembers was somehow not the country music stud he claimed to be. Turns out that Exotic hired musicians to record the songs, while he lip-synced in music videos.

43. The Jungle Meal Plan

Exotic had a unique method of nourishing his tigers, and he claimed it was the closest thing to what they’d naturally chomp on in the wilds of Africa. People would donate horses to the animal park. Exotic put a bullet in the horses’ heads and fed the whole carcass to the tigers. In honor of the poor horses, (as if) he also fed vitamins for horses to his beasts.

44. Hiding Ugly in Plain Sight

Exotic masterminded the G.W. Zoo as a “naked-steel” environment. Although most visitors were shocked at the countless cages, full of jungle cats and apes, Exotic viewed it as an honest way of experiencing wildlife. People got sprayed by urinating lions or pelted by feces-tossing apes. This proved wildly—and crazily—popular.

45. Joe Darwinism

In 2003, Exotic began messing with biological evolution. He visited zoos that bred tigers and lions to produce “ligers.” Exotic soon did the same thing—but he didn’t stop there.  He bred a liger with a lion, (a “liliger”) then a tiger and a liger. He was determined to continue until he’d reproduced a “prehistoric sabretooth tiger,” (biologically absurd).

46. Ready for an Extreme Close-Up

Before Exotic started filming his low-budget reality show, he underwent an extreme makeover including a platinum-blonde die job on the mullet, ear and eyebrow piercings, and an extra-long pinkie nail for added spice.

47. If He Could Tat All the Animals

Exotic used his body as a tattoo-covered temple devoted to monkey, tiger, peacock, deer-antler and tiger-stripe ink. He also saved a hunk of skin for a very meaningful tattoo, symbolizing (to him) the persecution he received by animal-rights groups: a trio of tatted bullet wounds in his chest, dripping with tatted blood.

48. Let’s Get Political

During an already topsy-turvy, 2016 presidential campaign, Exotic tossed his cowboy hat into the ring. His campaign video referred to Exotic as the “largest private tiger” zookeeper in the world. In it, he refused to cut his hair or change his glittery clothes. One of Exotic’s peers described his campaign as Donald Trump on drugs.

49. The Many Layers of This Fruitcake

Tiger King is so juicy, it’s like a guilty pleasure overload. Outside Joe Exotic, there’s zoo owner Doc Antle, assumed to be a thinly veiled cult leader, the ex-drug lord Mario Tabraue, who stuffed snakes full of coke to smuggle into Miami, and of course, the deranged flower-child Carole Baskin, the number one enemy of our guy Joe Exotic.

50. Hello, All You Cool Cats and Kittens…

Baskin is not portrayed as an innocent victim on Tiger King. In a very dark twist, she was married to Don Lewis, a self-made millionaire who disappeared in 1997. Some people think something far darker happened. Lewis’ daughter claims that Baskin was responsible for his death and that she covered up the crime by feeding his body to her tigers.

51. Round One: Hit Her With a Country Song

Baskin owned a Florida-based jungle cat rescue park, where she offered “interactive visits” and close contact with her animals. Then she became extremely active with PETA—and openly opposed to zoos like Exotic’s, claiming he ran “an industry of misery.” Exotic hit back at Baskin with a YouTube country video diss called “Kitty Kitty.” Aaaand it only got weirder and darker from there.

52. I Miss the Hatfields and McCoys

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bloodthirsty. But you may need a Gravol to get through the fur-flying catfight between Exotic and Baskin: after she started getting his petting zoo banned from malls, he started duplicating her company name online, basically dragging Baskin’s company through the mud. Baskin sued him for copyright infringement and her legal team definitely hit Exotic where it hurt. He declared bankruptcy in 2011.

53. Bond, Joe Bond

In September 2010, Exotic went to truly deranged lengths to get his revenge on Carole Baskin. He hired a helicopter to fly him above Baskin’s animal rescue so that he could take photos of the property. Exotic also bribed one of Baskin’s employees to swipe her private diary from the computer. With this “evidence” in hand, Exotic publicly accused Baskin of killing her late husband and even offered a cash award for information leading to her arrest.

54. Deplorable Human Conditions

Exotic was convicted of animal cruelty, but former employees accused him of equally deplorable treatment. He typically hired ex-cons or drug addicts, paying them abysmal wages. When they got hungry, they ate the expired hot dogs that had been donated for the cats. Even worse: after Exotic opened a restaurant, he was caught feeding expired meat to customers…

55. Want a Refund, or a Rain Check?

Exotic’s reality show cameras captured some nauseating stuff. The worst involved an employee named Saff, who lost his arm in a vicious tiger mauling. A shocked Saff told a co-worker during the accident, “This is going to be bad.” Exotic was filmed announcing the mauling to unsuspecting visitors, saying the park was temporarily closed and asking, “you want a refund, or a rain check?”

56. Beware The Ides of March

In March 2015, Exotic started vocalizing his dark fantasies of doing away with Carole Baskin. He became obsessed with harming her, but one catastrophe pushed him over the edge. A mysterious fire happened at the zoo, destroying his TV studio and a baby alligator enclosure. He blamed her—and he wanted blood.

57. There’s an Appetite Suppressant

When Exotic got dinner with buddies at a Mexican restaurant, his friends started noticing that Exotic seemed even stranger than usual. He talked about hunting down Carole Baskin, saying he’d never fantasized about “somebody’s brains on a wall” before. It made everyone uncomfortable, and a friend suggested he was going too far. “She has drove me to that point,” a debt-ridden Exotic replied.

58. Lowe and Behold

Luckily for Exotic, a man named Jeff Lowe entered the scene and agreed to bail Exotic out of his zoo debts. But Lowe wasn’t the world’s most credible guy. Instead, he was a classic scumbag driving overpriced cars. After his small-time petting zoo got shut down by-guess who!-Carole Baskin, Lowe “fundraised” by moving to Vegas and charging loaded gamblers thousands of dollars to pet tiger cubs that he’d sneak into casinos. Stay classy, Lowe.

59. The Travis Unraveling

In October 2017, tragedy struck. Exotic’s 23-year-old husband Travis Maldonado accidentally—and fatally—shot himself in the head. The trauma made Exotic unravel completely. He imagined that he could sense Travis’ spirit in everything from a honeybee to a dog and would creepily stare at the clouds, almost catatonic in his grief.

60. No More Mr. Zoo Guy

After Travis passed, Exotic wanted out of the zoo business. He finally did something right: donating 20 of his tigers, some bears, baboons, and chimps to PETA (an organization he once hated.) But because this is Joe Exotic, he also did something terrible: fatally wounding five of his beloved tigers. Exotic apparently joked that it was so easy, he should have blasted them all. Hilarious, right?

61. The Guy With the Teardrop Tattoo

With his ominous teardrop tattoo, Alan Glover spelled the beginning of the end for Joe Exotic. Jeff Lowe knew Glover and convinced him to come work at the zoo. At some point, Exotic approached Glover with a paid plot to take out Carole Baskin. But unbeknownst to either man, they had just made a huge mistake. The FBI was secretly recording their conversations. Oops.

62. If Glover Doesn’t Fit

Originally, the FBI had been investigating Exotic for animal cruelty, but when they discovered the plot to take out Baskin, they switched gears. Then Glover disappeared so the FBI brought in an undercover cop who’d pose as “Mark” the hitman. “Mark” met with Exotic and agreed to take out Baskin with an initial $10G payment upfront. Exotic said he’d scrounge up the cash by selling “a bunch of tigers.”

63. A Very Raggedy Anne Bust

Exotic left his pathetic zoo behind, drifting his way across the Southeast before landing in Gulf Breeze, Florida. In September 2018, he meandered towards a local hospital, searching for work. He didn’t know it, but everything was about to change. Suddenly, four unmarked cruisers surrounded Exotic. He later complained to reporters that the cops were vicious during the arrest. They said he surrendered like a ragdoll.

64. 12 Sleepy Jurors

Exotic was tried on two counts of murder for hire and 17 (known) counts of exotic-animal abuse. It seems unwise, but Exotic testified in his own defense. Witnesses said he appeared to be weirdly enthused as he tore a strip off Baskin for her supposed hypocrisy. Unfortunately for Exotic, his enthusiasm was not contagious. He continued to rant, the jurors basically went to sleep. He was found guilty and is now in jail.

65. Where Are They Now?

Baskin is apparently delighted that Exotic is being caged like his cats in prison. He may have moped, but Tiger King producers say he’s “loving” his surging viral fame following the show’s huge success. Baskin is also involved with developing ‘a virtual zoo of the future.’ What is Joe’s future? Well, he just slapped everyone with a $94 million lawsuit from jail.

Sources: 1. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13


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