Here’s a multiple-choice question for binge-watchers who’ve fallen down the Tiger King rabbit hole. Is the Netflix docu-series Tiger King: A) Weird, B) Inconceivable, C) Gross, or D) Addictive? The answer is “all of the above,” and most of us are craving even more answers. Well then, buckle in, all you cool cats and kittens.
Tiger King is the beastly masterpiece of Rebecca Chaiklin and her long-time friend Eric Goode. Several years back, Goode struck up a conversation with Chaiklin, telling her about an underworld that he compared to Breaking Bad. Except instead of dealing in illicit powders, the shady characters Goode described traded in exotic animals.
Many viewers have been thirsty for a follow-up about how Joe Exotic is feeling behind bars. Well, wait no more: Both Goode and Exotic's husband Dillon Passage say that things have improved slightly for the tiger king since the doc came out. Passage said that Exotic “loves the attention, obviously," and especially adores the fan-generated memes floating around in cyberspace.
Chaiklin has called Exotic “creative, colorful, abusive, horrific…all at once.” But she thinks there’s a dark reason behind his antics. The show stayed away from revealing it, but Exotic suffered immense emotional and physical mistreatment as a child. Chaiklin believes he never worked through his issues, and only continued the cycle.
As Tiger King went on, Joe Exotic's cheery, likeable veneer was slowly rubbed away to reveal a dangerous man underneath. But Chaiklin says Exotic made a chilling revelation the very first time they met. Even though he’d “married” men before same-sex unions were recognized, he gravely told her that he didn’t truly believe in gay marriage because “it was a sin.”
Carole Baskin's relationship with producers soured quickly. Why? Baskin claims they told her an enormous lie. She’s publicly stated that, from the beginning, the production team approached her to be part of a “big cat version of Blackfish,” which she happily agreed to. That's not exactly what ended up happening...
Most of all, Baskin is infuriated with how Tiger King portrayed her marriage to her ex-husband Don Lewis—and his now infamous disappearance. She said she was never offered the chance to “rebut the absurd claims,” and that “unsavory lies are better for getting viewers." Well, that all seems interesting, so let’s dive in for a minute…
Baskin was born Carole Stairs, and she grew up surrounded by Florida swamplands. Like Exotic, she dreamed of being a vet, and she took in stray cats as pets—she even leashed them and took them for walks. But Baskin wasn’t a particularly happy kid, and suffered from extreme boredom. So she took her life into her own hands...
In 1977, a teenaged Baskin ran away from home with a pet cat in tow. She hitchhiked up and down the entire East coast, learning runaway safety tips like spending the night underneath parked cars. Not many people thought to look for a runaway (and her cat) in those places. But soon enough, Baskin met a man who would change her life.
Baskin ended up back in Florida, and she got a job at a discount store in Tampa. Her boss’s name was Mike Murdock, and he said she could keep her pet cat at his place during the day, “so it wouldn’t roast in the truck.” But there was a twist. When she was 17 years old, Baskin married Murdock and got pregnant, eventually giving birth to a girl.
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Murdock might not have minded her cat, but behind closed doors, the couple hid a dark secret. He physically mistreated Baskin and controlled her entire life. He even recorded her car’s mileage, and was always suspicious that she was fooling around. To cope, Baskin got into breeding show-cats from home to make extra money. But this life couldn't last for long.
After that infamous fight with Mike where she pelted him with a potato, Baskin happened to meet Don Lewis by chance on the side of the road. But Tiger King left out one of the best parts. When he met her, the married Lewis gave a fake name for himself: "Bob." Soon enough, they were starting a clandestine affair at Lewis' worksite. And then things really got interesting.
Whenever Lewis and Baskin met for a secret rendezvous at his workplace, "Bob" told her that she had to stay hidden from his millionaire boss at all costs. This boss, some guy named Don Lewis, was apparently an angry stickler. Baskin bought it hook, line, and sinker, until one day when she innocently called “Bob” at work…
Baskin always spoke to one secretary when she called “Bob.” But one day, a different voice answered the phone. This woman told Baskin she’d never heard of “Bob Martin.” Baskin then described him to the woman, who laughed and told her that the middle-aged, blue-eyed, blonde guy she was describing was, in fact, Don Lewis.
In 1991, Baskin and Lewis got married. They also got a pet bobcat, but it turned out to be a terror. It waited like a predator to pounce on Lewis, chased Baskin’s daughter around, and petrified the family dog. Instead of simply placing it elsewhere, Lewis decided that the bobcat needed kin, so they drove to Minnesota to meet with a bobcat breeder. Fate was coming around again…
Baskin was shocked to see cages of bobcat kittens at the breeder’s place in Minnesota. She mumbled that she didn’t realize bobcats were such popular pets. The breeder shrugged, admitting he was mostly a “fur farm.” Baskin then noticed a pile of bobcat corpses, and she totally freaked out. So Lewis asked the breeder, “How much for every cat here?” Thus, Carole Baskin as we know her was born.
Tiger King described how stingy Don Lewis was with his millions, but casual viewers don't know the half of it. Seriously, Scrooge had nothing on him. For one, the sparkling engagement ring he gave Baskin was actually cubic zirconia. He also refused to pay for cable when her daughter used it, and would scour dumpsters behind grocery stores for day-old bread.
Baskin did used to breed big cats, but she traces her change of heart back to one terrifying moment. One day, she was at a big cat auction and saw a cat she recognized—it was a creature she'd bred and birthed. Knowing the animal would be slaughtered after being sold off, and Baskin claimed she stopped breeding after that.
According to Baskin herself, Don Lewis was addicted to bedroom intimacy, and this addiction is what pushed him to have so many illicit affairs throughout his official relationships. In particular, Baskin says that Lewis would fly down to Costa Rica and engage in liaisons when she was menstruating. Aw, what a stand-up guy. But we'll get into more about his disappearance later...
Doc Antle is obviously a very strange guy. But his past is even more bizarre. After dropping out of school in grade nine, Antle eventually ended up alone in China. While there, he somehow earned a title that translates to “doctor of mystical science.” In the 1980s, Antle then landed in Yogaville, Virginia to work as a “lecture-guru.” And before you ask, yes, there is a Yogaville, Virginia.
You wouldn't know it from Tiger King's portrayal, but Doc Antle's cultish zoo is incredibly popular. In fact, Antle's biggest claim to fame is also a huge pop culture moment: He was the keeper wrangling animals during Britney Spears' iconic "snake" performance at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards. But this FAR from the last we've heard of Doc and his creepy cult...
The hyped-up, three-way union of Joe Exotic, John Finlay, and Travis Maldonado barely lasted a year, but some fans don't realize that the breakdown of the marriage happened on screen. It all went down when Finlay first confessed to producer Rick Kirkman that he was “really not gay." And that's not the only surprising thing...
There's another thing Tiger King didn't highlight: While Exotic was never officially married to Finlay, he was bona fide married to Maldonado. That's because in 2015, after the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal, Exotic went back and had another marriage ceremony with Maldonado, taking on his last name officially.
Finlay has since updated his relationship status. He was with the mysterious girl zoo receptionist for three years, and they had a child together. But he’s clarified that they “never got engaged, never got married, anything like that.” Finlay is now properly in love with an Okie named Stormey Sanders. He expects to “be married soon.”
One burning question on the minds of Tiger King viewers was: Why the heck does John Finlay never wear a shirt in his interviews? Finlay revealed that “the producer actually wanted it done that way.” He said interviews do exist with him in shirts, but none of them made it in. Instead, we got to see all those tats 24/7.
After the tragedy surrounding his husband Travis (more on that later), Exotic met his third husband Dillon Passage. Their first meeting was actually a lot more romantic than the show makes it out to be. Exotic met Passage at a jungle-themed establishment near his zoo. While there, Exotic hit the karaoke stage and serenaded Passage with a tune called “This Old Town.” But it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows...
Exotic's husbands Travis Maldonado and John Finlay were addicted to some serious substances, and many have wondered if his current husband Dillon Passage suffers from the same vulnerabilities. Sadly, the answer is yes. Passage has confided that he was addicted to Xanax when he first met Exotic. However, he has a much different take on the zookeeper than others do.
Where people have accused Exotic of taking advantage of his partners' addictions, Passage claims it has been the exact opposite in his relationship with the animal keeper. Passage claims that instead of feeding his habit, Exotic helped "get [me] healthy again, get me in the right mental state." He added, "Joe made me feel like there was reason to be alive.”
Romance bloomed like a time-lapse for Exotic and Passage. After serenading Passage at karaoke, Exotic invited the 22-year-old back to the zoo. Passage said, “I got to play with baby tigers, which was frickin’ insane.” The next day, after attending a Christmas parade, Passage “Just never left the zoo.” Within two weeks, they got hitched.
One of Tiger King's biggest villains was the cub-smuggler Jeff Lowe, AKA the guy who ousted Exotic from his own zoo. Since the show came out, Lowe experienced some huge poetic justice. Exotic recently launched a $94 million lawsuit against Lowe from his cell. Looks like Lowe is now the bullseye on Exotic's wall dartboard.
For anyone concerned about the whereabouts of the scuzzy bit-player in Tiger King with the worst pageboy cut in history: former club owner James Garretson is alive. Though he notoriously served as an FBI informant against Exotic, he’s currently somewhere in Oklahoma running a cheap housewares store called Tiger Liquidations.
Dillon Passage may have a dark past in common with Maldonado and Finlay, but he does differ from them in one crucial way. While Finlay and Maldonado identified as straight men at various times throughout their marriage to Exotic, Passage says he doesn't like women at all. As he put it, “I am in no way straight. I am as gay as they can be.”
Passage also came to the late Maldonado’s defense, saying he heard from “multiple people that Travis loved Joe unconditionally, never wanted to take his wedding ring off. He loved Joe for Joe…” In Passage’s opinion, Maldonado not being truly gay didn’t mean there wasn’t a strong connection between him and Exotic.
While Passage thinks Tiger King is “very authentic," he does think it got one big thing wrong. According to him, the docu-series skimped on showing the ways that Exotic helped people in need. Passage pointed out that Exotic bailed a lot of people out of the slammer, even when these people were always raiding the fridge. Here’s hoping they checked the expiry date on those hotdogs...
Given the tragic and upsetting end to Exotic's relationships with both Maldonado and Finlay, people often wonder if he and Dillon Passage are still together. The younger man recently confirmed that they are. “We are still married,” he affirms. In fact, if Exotic received a pardon tomorrow, Passage has said, “I’d go pick him up and he’d come live with me."
The humblest figures in Tiger King can get lost in the sensationalized kerfuffle. Saff [Kelci] Saffery is one of those figures. A transgender man, Saff memorably lost his arm after a tiger mauling at Exotic's zoo. One thing you might not know about Saffery? He's also a US Army veteran. That explains his chill attitude about the whole "tiger mauling" thing.
Saffery is currently staying low-key at his new California home. In fact, he's one of the most reluctant stars of the show, and never sought out fame. He even declined to be in Tiger King several times before finally agreeing to appear in front of the camera. Wonder how many figures it took for him to sit down with producers.
If you're surprised to hear that Saffery is a transgender man, you're not alone. Journalist Robert Moor, who is affiliated with Joe Exotic's story through his own podcast, had to tweet out recently that Saff doesn’t go by his birth name, “Kelci.” Sadly, Moor revealed that the Tiger King producers didn’t respect that choice, and obscured Saffery's gender identity in the show.
Joshua Dial, Joe Exotic's political campaign manager, is also one of the lesser but more memorable characters on the show, and was the (relative) voice of reason amid all the chaos. But his backstory is equally insane. Blink and you could've missed the reveal in the show, but Exotic found Dial while the future campaign manager was working at the ammo section of a Walmart.
As Tiger King revealed in very disturbing CCTV footage, Dial was the sole witness to Maldonado’s unfortunate end. The aftermath was crushing, and dial was understandably traumatized by the experience. He now can’t sit in offices, he quit politics, and people are actively fundraising to get him much-needed mental healthcare.
Everyone who has seen the show knows Joe Exotic abandoned his zoo in a hurry after Lowe started threatening to bring in the authorities. But most don't know about the tearful confession Exotic made just after he fled. Exotic filmed a heartbreaking “farewell video” on Facebook Live in the backseat of his getaway car.
Exotic lamented, “The animal industry has sucked the life out of me for the past 20 years. I need a break. That’s about all I have to say.”
Producer Eric Goode’s passions include exotic reptile conservation and preservation. He co-founded the Turtle Conservancy, and he owns an amphibian and reptile preserve that has brought him into close contact with the “…smuggling and the dark underbelly” of exotic reptile trading and the various “characters” in that underworld.
Initially, Goode wanted Chaiklin to film the mildly queasy dealings he was familiar with in the exotic reptile realm. They’d arranged to meet a guy for a typical “venomous snake sale,” but were shocked when the seller opened his van doors. He had a rare snow leopard. Goode called it “the holy grail of animals,” and their focus immediately shifted to the world of big cats.
Chaiklin said that even she never expected Tiger King to take such a true-crime twist. She recognized the “fascinating show quality” of Exotic and Baskin, the two bitter enemies at the center of the show, but admitted that their escalating feud was only humorous to her at first. Everything that unraveled after that wasn't at all planned.
Goode has admitted the most difficult part of making Tiger King: getting access to the animal keepers. In addition to PETA's attacks on them, zoo owners like Doc Antle and Jeff Lowe were initially unenthused about the docu-series, and didn't want the filmmakers to muscle in on their world and put a dangerous spotlight on them.
Despite the reluctance of people like Doc Antle to appear in front of the camera, the filmmakers had it easier with two of the show's main characters. Interestingly, Goode admitted that both Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin were stoked to be on camera, and he had zero difficulty getting them to spill their guts about their feud, at least at first.
Some people have a lot of sympathy for Joe Exotic, but Goode isn't one of them. He believes that Exotic still needs to take responsibility for the harm he caused, and calls him an “absolute egomaniac and narcissist” who needs to “do his time and really think about this." Whether or not Exotic will reform is something we'll have to wait and see about.
Doc Antle was one of the shadiest side characters on Tiger King, but also the most mysterious. His scantily-clad female "employees" raised eyebrows as high as their hemlines, but most people don't know the dark details. As the show revealed, he makes the women change their names, but did you know he also forces them to stay within 20 pounds of their “perfect athletic weight”? And that's not all...
In order to "train" his young female employees, Doc Antle assigns them a very strange syllabus. All the women have to watch The Devil Wears Prada, since it's supposed to help them "learn the culture"of the zoo. Whether that's bad bosses, beautiful women, catty rivalries, or all of the above, we don't know. For his part, Antle has vehemently denied all the cult claims about his zoo.
There are some things that Tiger King left out of the show or diminished when it comes to Carole Baskin's husband Don Lewis. For one, it's not currently common knowledge that Lewis had his pilot's license suspended when he vanished, though he still flew planes. This may lend some credence to Baskin's claims that she is innocent and there's no foul play involved. But that's not all...
Maldonado's tragic end was so chaotic and shocking, not many people caught the whole story. Dial had since revealed the truth. It was truly an accidental death, with Maldonado playing around and trying to show Dial that the gun wouldn't fire without a clip. Sadly, it must have had one inside. Dial says he "saw the fear in his eyes" just as Maldonado realized what he'd done and then passed. RIP.
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