A self-described "gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet," Joe Exotic was a charming local legend in Oklahoma — until he got arrested for plotting murder.
The life story of Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage is so strange that only a Netflix documentary series could do it justice. The seven-part production followed the self-proclaimed “Tiger King” as he ran his controversial exotic animal park, fought detractors, and cozied up to tigers.
The gay, gun-toting Oklahoman resembled a flamboyant cartoon character more than an actual person, let alone somebody who spearheaded an extensive wildlife operation that involved lions, tigers, and cheetahs. Then again, Exotic wasn’t as professional as his job description implied.
As the owner of Greater Wynwood Exotic Animal Park, Exotic hired ex-convicts, homeless people, and drug addicts to work there. He paid them next to nothing for extremely dangerous work.
He also routinely set off explosives when he wasn’t filming a web series out of his compound and threatening the lives of animal rights activists who were concerned with his treatment of tigers. Exotic amassed a series of husbands and borrowed their last names, possibly to avoid lawsuits.
Now serving a 22-year sentence in federal prison, Exotic’s escapades have garnered renewed fame with the Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness documentary that some say is so preposterous it can barely be believed.
Who Is Joe Exotic?
Joe Exotic was born Joseph Schreibvogel on March 5, 1963, and was raised among animals as the middle child of four siblings on a Kansas farm. He claimed his parents never told him they loved him, and that an older boy raped him when he was five — in his own home.
His homosexuality became an issue when bullies mocked him for preferring to socialize with girls instead of boys. His penchant for criminal retaliation became a problem then, too, as he popped the tires of a hundred cars to get back at them.
“I had to get a job and pay for them all,” he said. “But they never f–ked with me again. Never.”
Young Joseph Schreibvogel dreamed of nothing more than surrounding himself with animals and their unconditional love — and harnessing some semblance of control over his life. After becoming the police chief of Eastvale, Texas, he explored gay nightlife and had what he called “the bad year” in 1985.
Exotic tried to kill himself by crashing his police cruiser into a bridge embankment. At least, that’s the story he told everyone, though nobody in the tiny town of 503 people recalls the crash actually happening. He merely offered a photo of the totaled car as proof.
It was this kind of myth-making that he would later employ as owner of his exotic animal sanctuary. After his brother Garold Wayne died in a car crash in 1997, a hefty settlement saw Exotic flush with cash.
What better way to spend it than by opening a tiger-centric park?
The True Story Of The Tiger King
Joe Exotic purchased an Oklahoma horse ranch he named after his brother, though the initials conveniently served to signify the Greater Wynwood area as well. Before he knew it, Exotic had purchased so many tigers, lions, and dogs that he was living in the middle of a thriving wildlife park.
His lifestyle rapidly evolved into a P.T. Barnum-esque sideshow, though more violent and far more eccentric. In order to feed his big cats, he’d simply shoot horses. Of course, his customers never noticed these incidents — and merely saw Exotic as an enthusiastic, gay, tattooed zookeeper.
With a primitive reality TV show running out of his compound that often streamed self-produced country music songs and videos, Exotic became an entertaining local legend.
This garnered the attention of Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist who publicly criticized Exotic’s park.
Exotic thought her commentary was unwarranted, especially since Baskin herself kept big cats in cages and charged people for tours of her Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Tampa, Florida. It’s also debated to this day whether or not Baskin murdered her husband in order to fund that venture.
As for Exotic, he couldn’t have asked for a better arch-nemesis. With every statement Baskin posted about him on her website, he made a music video portraying her as a murderer or mocked her on his web series. But all the while, G.W. Exotic Animal Park was running on fumes.
With a litany of untrained, often toothless employees managing the day-to-day duties came serious repercussions. One woman had her arm ripped off during a seemingly routine feeding session.
As the Netflix documentary shows, Joe Exotic simply told his customers that a woman had just been mutilated and offered refunds.
Baskin, meanwhile, had pockets deep enough to win a financially draining feud against Exotic, while he most certainly did not. In 2011, Baskin secured $1 million in punitive damages against Exotic and his business.
Nonetheless, the self-proclaimed “Tiger King” wouldn’t stop threatening her life on the internet. And his increased visibility saw him targeted as a legal problem before he knew it.
Joe Exotic Goes To Prison
Exotic eventually discovered a cache of documents that allegedly suggested Baskin killed her husband. A former employee of hers gave him her diary, from which Exotic naturally posted entries on his web series. He began offering $10,000 to anyone providing information leading to her arrest.
“Carole will go to jail, if it is the last thing I see in my life,” he wrote online.
In his two-pronged quest to both become famous and destroy Baskin’s business, Exotic was slowly but surely destroying his own — and removing any chance to enjoy his potential fame.
Though he hired producer Rick Kirkham in 2014 to help him turn his web series into an actual show, the project eventually went up in smoke when a 2015 explosion destroyed his TV studio — and killed a number of his alligators.
It’s still debated whether or not Exotic himself ordered arson. He was ensnared in numerous lawsuits with Baskin at the time, and some of the recorded footage may have been quite incriminating against him.
Exotic then unsuccessfully tried to run for president in 2016, though his plan to have Baskin murdered soon became his most pressing issue. After his 23-year-old husband Travis Maldonado accidentally shot himself in the head with a pistol and died in 2017, Exotic met Dillon Passage.
The two married two months after Travis died — after which he unsuccessfully ran for governor of Oklahoma.
In order to continue running his business, he hired a man with a teardrop tattoo named Alan Glover. And desperate to remove Baskin from his life, Exotic offered Glover a gruesome business proposition:
Kill Carole Baskin for $5,000 before the job is done, with the promise of $10,000 once complete.
That November, a friend of Joe’s named James Garretson came by to visit and casually inquired about the murder. Glover told him everything — entirely unaware Garretson was an FBI informant.
Glover said he had accepted the offer, and that nobody would hear from him until Carole’s murder hit the news.
“And if anybody rats me out and I get popped, everybody that they love, I’ll have them burnt alive,” said Glover. “Every f–king single person. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart. They will be burnt the f–k alive.”
From Tiger King To Prison Inmate
Joe Exotic was found guilty of the failed murder-for-hire plot in April 2019. He is now serving 22 years in federal prison, with additional charges comprising eight counts of falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.
“If he completes his sentence and is released, we will end up spending the rest of our lives, constantly looking over our shoulders, for a threat to our lives,” Baskin said in court. “I hope you will give us as many years free of that threat as you can.”
In the end, whether Exotic maintains that it was necessary to publicly mock and threaten Baskin after she secured a million-dollar judgment against him is unclear. Though he seemingly wanted fame more than anything else in the world, basking in it behind bars is likely not what he envisioned.
As for Carole Baskin, the Netflix documentary explores both her potentially ominous past as well as those of other characters from this dangerous and eccentric world of wildlife enthusiasts, such as the purported inspiration for Oliver Stone’s Scarface, Mario Tabraue.
The story of Joe Exotic — including the accidents on his property, the personalities he surrounded himself with, and the exorbitant legal troubles he found himself in — is certainly emblematic of the age-old saying that truth is stranger than fiction.