“The Big Cat people are backstabbing pieces of sh*t,” a man says at the start of Netflix’s new true crime documentary series Tiger King. True as that may or may not be, few of them end up in jail. Although Tiger King highlights many people in the Big Cat community, Joe Exotic’s story is arguably the wildest of them all.
“Joe Exotic” (whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage) not only wanted to be known for owning the endangered species of tigers, as well as lions and other exotic animals, but was allegedly willing to kill to maintain his persona.
The documentary series depicts how Joe Exotic went from growing up on a farm in Kansas to owning the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma with what he claimed to be “the largest tiger collection in America”—to a convicted felon.
But… where is Joe Exotic now?
Today, he faces 22 years in prison for attempting to pay a hitman (who was actually an undercover FBI agent) $10,000 to murder animal rights activist Carole Baskin in November 2017, as well as for killing five tiger cubs. Joe was found guilty of two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records, and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, according to the New York Times.
Despite his prison sentence, Joe did not admit to any guilt in a press statement shared in a Facebook post on January 22, 2020. “I still maintain my innocence and looking forward in the upcoming days to my attorneys filing my Appeal and moving on to the next step in this Nightmare,” he wrote. “At some point the U.S. Attorneys office and Agents involved will have to answer to the fact that they participated in Perjury to obtain this conviction.”
For his part, Timothy J. Downing, the United States attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma, said in a statement about the verdict, “We are thankful for the Court’s thoughtful consideration of the gravity of this murder-for-hire scheme, as well as the defendant’s egregious wildlife crimes in imposing a 22-year sentence.”
What exactly were Joe Exotic’s “wildlife crimes”?
A 2011 undercover investigation by the Humane Society found that tigers were beaten and whipped during training at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. (An investigator worked there as an animal caretaker for four months, per the organization’s report.) Visitors were also bitten and scratched by the cubs that were too old to be around humans, the report stated, and baby tigers that had not even opened their eyes yet were passed around to visitors, which caused the animals trauma.
“The Humane Society of the United States has known for a long time about the horrific business that this man was running,” Kitty Block, the chief executive of the Humane Society, told the New York Times in an email at the time of Joe’s sentencing. “Having investigated and campaigned against his operation for years, it is a comfort to us to know that a man who caused all of that suffering and cruelty has been charged for his crimes.”
What else is Joe Exotic known for today?
Well, everyone knew he had exotic animals, of course. If his moniker didn’t give it away, he also bought up billboards all along I-35 between Dallas and Oklahoma City advertising Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (also referred to as the G.W. Zoo in Tiger King).
The Netflix series gives a glimpse of these signs, featuring Joe’s mullet-covered head snuggling next to a tiger as the zookeeper wears an unbuttoned, loud-patterned shirt. If that weren’t enough, the zoo’s gift shop sold Joe Exotic-branded skincare products, T-shirts, underwear, condoms, and lube—all products Joe proudly shows off to the producers of Tiger King.
Later, he opened a pizza restaurant called Zooters and a bar called Safari Bar down the road from the zoo, according to Texas Monthly. His shows, Joe Exotic TV and Joe Gone Wild brought in millions of views, and he was even featured in shows on CNN, BBC, and CBS This Morning, according to the publication. In other words, Joe’s image was everywhere.
Joe Exotic became so well known that he ran for U.S. President as an Independent in 2016, per the New York Times, and for governor of Oklahoma in 2018, local news station Fox 25 reported.
A campaign video for his 2016 presidential run features him walking around a big cat enclosure, saying, “I am not wearing a suit. I am gay. I’ve had two boyfriends for most of my life… I am broke as sh*t. I have a judgement against me from a b*tch down there in Florida… And this is all paid for by the committee of Joe Exotic for America.”
Joe obviously did not win either election.
Okay, so… what led to Joe Exotic’s prison sentence?
For starters, not everyone agreed with Joe’s exotic zoo practices. Over a thousand miles away, an animal activist named Carole Baskin operated Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary based in Tampa, Florida. As the documentary shows, although the two of them appeared to have similar jobs, they disagreed about almost every animal rights issue, especially the ethics around breeding big cats and letting visitors pet cubs—both of which were essential to Joe’s business.
The “judgment against me” to which Joe referred to in his campaign video is Baskin filing and then winning a $1 million civil suit against him over a copyright infringement lawsuit. This was in addition to her trying to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act—an act which, if passed, would have forced Joe to shut down his business.
After losing his race for governor, Joe Exotic became increasingly paranoid. “You could always read Joe. He didn’t have a poker face,”Joshua Dial, Joe’s former campaign manager, said in the Tiger King docuseries. “We knew something was going on. He was already a paranoid person…but the paranoia was not unfounded.” As is shown in the documentary, Joe finding a microphone and antennae on the gift shop roof was just one of the many things that increased his anxiety.
A lot of Joe’s paranoia also stemmed from the fact that he was was going broke—fast. For one, just feeding the animals was expensive. Tiger King shows how even giving the tigers mostly expired meat Walmart donated still costed $3,000 per tiger, per year. That’s not counting all the other costs associated with caring for exotic creatures. Running for office didn’t help Joe’s financial situation, either. Jeff Lowe—a man who bought the G.W. Exotic Animal Park—is depicted accusing Joe of embezzling money from the park to fund his political campaigns.
Joe’s paranoia (mixed with his financial desperation) eventually led to Joe allegedly paying $10,000 for a hitman to kill Baskin, the Associated Press reported. Because of Joe’s financial straits, Tiger King mentions that he bartered over the price. Joe agreed to pay half the money upfront, and the other half after Baskin’s death.
There was just one problem: That hitman was an undercover FBI agent. He recorded Joe saying, “Just like follow her into a mall parking lot and just cap her and drive off,” which was played during the trial.
There is a possibility that Joe’s conviction was a setup on the part of Jeff Lowe. Tiger King casts doubt on whether money was actually exchanged between Joe and the “hitman,” or if Joe just talked about killing Baskin. There is a theory that Lowe, as well as his friends, might have orchestrated the trial as a way to protect themselves from being punished for their own crimes.
However, Baskin is still convinced of Joe’s guilt. “Because of his constant threats to kill me, I have found myself seeing every bystander as a potential threat,” Baskin wrote in a statement regarding Joe’s prison sentence in January 2020 on the Big Cat Rescue website. “…My daughter, my husband, my mother, my staff, and volunteers have all been in peril because of his obsession with seeing me dead.”
As far as anyone knows, Joe is still in jail today.
You can stream all of Tiger King on Netflix on March 20th.
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