Thanks to Netflix, COVID-19 stay-at-home orders are a little more bearable. On March 20, 2020, the uber-popular streaming service released Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, and the world hunkered down for its next binge-watch.
Tiger King features Joe Exotic, founder of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (aka, G.W. Zoo), who is now serving 22 years for a murder-for-hire scheme. He was also found guilty of falsifying wildlife records and for violating the Endangered Species Act at his private roadside zoo, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office Western District of Oklahoma.
A record-breaking 34.3 million people viewed the show over the first ten days and were rewarded with a one-of-a-kind true crime story. The seven-part series featured exotic animal abuse, arson, suicide, maiming, death threats, copyright infringement, missing persons, cults, polygamy, embezzlement, and even a gubernatorial run. Each new episode delivered yet another mind-blowing revelation. Fans experienced whiplash with one bizarre turn of events after another and soon found themselves taking sides: Should Joe Exotic be in prison, or not?
Here, we highlight just eight of Tiger King’s most remarkable stories. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
8 Joe Exotic Is a Gay Polygamist
Fifty-seven-year-old Joseph Schreibvogel, aka Joe Exotic, is an openly gay, gun-wielding polygamist who sports a horseshoe mustache, bleach-blonde mullet, and a giant chip on his shoulder.
Joe’s love life has been complicated and extensive, and the show highlighted a dramatic portion of it: his double-marriage to employees John Finlay and Travis Maldonado. In 2014, the “thruple,” donning matching pink shirts and boutonnieres, celebrated an unofficial wedding ceremony with zoo colleagues and live animals.
It was 2003 when Joe hired 19-year-old John Finlay for his zoo and roadshow. Finlay said Joe Exotic taught him what love was all about. He expressed his devotion to his boss/lover with a variety of tattoos, including below-the-belt ink that read, “Privately Owned by Joe Exotic.” On-screen interviews always featured Finlay with no shirt and few teeth (aka, “meth mouth”). After the show aired, Finlay admitted that he wasn’t thrilled with the way he came across in the series. “I was portrayed as a drugged-out hillbilly and that was not me then,” he stated. “At that time, I was four to five years clean.”
Less than a year after their unconventional wedding ceremony, Finlay decided he wanted out of the relationship. He ran off with a woman who also worked for the zoo. The couple, who spent three years together, share a child. Today, he’s engaged to Stormey Sanders, who he met online. He works as a welder, and his fiancee moderates a Facebook page called “The Truth About John Finlay.”
Travis Maldonado came to the G.W. Zoo from Southern California in 2013. The show briefly touched on the 19-year-old’s struggle with drug addiction. Arguably, the most shocking moment in the Tiger King series was Maldonado’s accidental suicide in the zoo’s gift shop in 2017. Episode 5 features CCTV footage of Joe Exotic’s campaign manager, Joshua Dial, witnessing the shooting. Maldanado wanted to prove to Dial that his Ruger pistol wouldn’t fire without its ammunition clip. He removed the magazine but not the bullet in the chamber. He fired the gun and was killed instantly.
“I was sitting in the chair you know, looking at him when he put the gun to his head,” Dial said. “It’s not like in the movies. I knew he was dead the second he pulled the trigger but at the same time I didn’t, you know? I thought it was a joke. Because, you know, Travis was a jokester. He was a prankster. He liked to play pranks on people.”
7 Joe Exotic Had Five Husbands in All
Before marrying Finlay and Maldonado, Joe Exotic had two other husbands. In the late 1980s, he met 19-year-old Brian Rhyne in a gay cowboy bar in Texas. Brian, who was with Joe when he opened the zoo, died of complications from HIV in 2001.
A year later, Joe Exotic met second husband J.C. Hartpence, 24, with whom he developed a traveling tiger/magic show. The pair soon found that they had different visions for the business, and their relationship turned ugly. Joe threatened to feed his husband to the tigers, and Hartpence reportedly held two guns to Joe’s head while he slept. Hartpence is currently serving a life sentence for murder. He is also a convicted pedophile.
Two months after Maldonado died, Joe Exotic married 22-year-old Dillon Passage and changed his surname to Maldonado-Passage. Despite Joe’s incarceration, the pair remain married.
6 Carole Baskin is Crazy…Like a Fox
Joe Exotic has made a lot of enemies, but his No. 1 nemesis was — and always will be — “Carole Fucking Baskin.” Baskin, 58, is the founder of Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary in Tampa, Florida that works to end the breeding and exploitation of privately owned big cats in the US. Her current (third) husband, Howard Baskin, has christened her the “Mother Theresa of cats.”
Private exotic animal owners criticize Baskin for doing the same thing they’re doing but with a bigger profit margin. While Joe Exotic and the like purchase and breed cats at their own expense, Baskin gets her cats for free by “rescuing” them from offenders. And while zookeepers pay their workers (albeit dismally), Baskin’s labor is all volunteer. She claims that the Joe Exotic types create the problems, and she fixes them. But her sanctuary, along with her huge social media presence, appears to be making Baskin a very wealthy woman.
With the help of PETA, Baskin effectively shut down Joe Exotic’s roadshow. The roadshow involved taking tiger cubs to shopping malls, where Joe made tens of thousands of dollars by charging fans to pet the cubs. Baskin used her online presence to target zookeepers and exotic animal owners, and her efforts negatively impacted their bottom line.
Joe pushed back on his internet show. He informed animal rights activists that they would “stop breathing” before they shut him down. He repeatedly threatened Baskin’s life, even airing footage of himself shooting mannequins and blow-up dolls in her likeness. For Baskin’s birthday, Joe had her mailbox stuffed with venomous snakes.
But Baskin had deeper pockets and a farther reach than her nemesis, and she continued to make his life miserable. And now, while Joe sits in jail, Baskin continues to profit from her “charity” work.
5 Did Don Lewis Disappear, or Was He Fed to the Tigers?
By episode three of Tiger King, we discover that the real Baskin drama involves neither her charity work nor being in Joe Exotic’s crosshairs. What viewers really want to know is: WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED TO HER SECOND HUSBAND?!
In January 1981, after feuding with her allegedly abusive first husband, Baskin was tearfully roaming the dark streets when married millionaire Don Lewis spotted her from his car. On his third attempt to pick her up, he offered to let her keep his pistol aimed at him while they drove around together. (Yeah, weird.) They kicked off their long-term extramarital affair that night, eventually divorced their respective spouses, and wed in 1991.
In 1992, Baskin and her new husband founded Wildlife on Easy Street, a bed and breakfast that offered tourists the opportunity to sleep with exotic cats in rented cabins. The couple purchased and bred a lot of big cats–the very thing that Baskin fights today. Eventually, the couple’s visions diverged: Lewis wanted to keep breeding; Baskin wanted to turn the B&B into a big cat sanctuary.
In June 1997, Lewis filed a restraining order against Baskin, claiming that she possessed multiple firearms and threatened to kill him. The restraining order was rejected. On August 18, 1997, Don Lewis disappeared. His body has never been found, and the missing person case remains open.
However, after five years, a missing person can be declared dead. So, five years and one day after Lewis’ disappearance, Baskin did just that. As the executor of his estate, she inherited somewhere between $5 million and $10 million. Oddly, Lewis’s will specified, in highly unusual language, that Baskin would get everything in the event of his death “or disappearance.” Chilling.
There is no evidence that Baskin killed Lewis or was involved in his disappearance. But the Tiger King series certainly raises questions about her innocence. Joe Exotic, along with Lewis’s former wife and daughters, speculates that Baskin murdered Lewis, put his body through the meat grinder, and fed him to the tigers. The zookeeper even published a music video entitled “Here Kitty-Kitty” that features Baskin’s doppelganger feeding raw meat–meant to be Lewis’s remains–to caged tigers. Theories like this make for great TV. And Joe Exotic knows it:
“Me and Carole made money off each other,” he bragged. “We became popular off of each other because I was her number one most-wanted cub abuser that she could make money off of, and she was my number one murdered-her husband-and-fed-him-to-the-tigers and crazy bitch out there that I could make music videos and shit about.”
4 Zoo Staffers Ate What the Big Cats Ate
It’s expensive to feed hundreds of big cats, alligators, bears, and other exotic animals every day. Joe Exotic claimed it cost him about a quarter of a million dollars a year to feed his extensive collection. And that’s with his extreme cost-cutting approach of using roadkill, dead farm animals, and other donated fodder.
The G.W. Zoo relied most heavily on regular truckloads of expired meat from Walmart. Packages of pork, beef, and chicken spilled out of 18-wheelers to sustain not only the cats but, it seems, the workers as well. Joe Exotic’s employees lived on-site and earned “$128 per week,” according to zookeeper Erik Cowie. The employees got first pick of the expired meat, which was often all they had to eat. The castoff food was also used to make the pizza that was sold to zoo customers!
3 Being Mauled By a Tiger Is Apparently No Big Deal
Zoo staffer Kelci “Saff” Saffery was introduced in episode one, but it wasn’t until episode two that we noticed he was missing an arm. (Note: There has been much controversy and discussion about whether Saff goes by “he” or “she.”)
The show begins with chaos, a 911 call, and a bleeding Saff lying on the ground next to a tiger cage. Joe quickly donned his medical bomber jacket and informed customers that “an employee stuck their arm through the cage and a tiger tore his arm off.” He offered refunds and rain checks and fretted over how he would ever recover financially.
Saff, meanwhile, was rushed to the hospital. His hand was still working but the prognosis was grim. The surgeon proposed two years of reconstructive surgery or amputation. Saff opted for the amputation and returned to work the following week.
When asked why he would return to a job that took his arm, he said, “Our mission is to give these animals a fighting chance. If I stay in the hospital, the media wins.”
Subsequently, footage of the attack was shown to prospective employees. “There was a time and place where we had to use it as a safety video,” Saff said. “We didn’t have any further of a conversation than this should be the one thing people see before they decide if this is a career move they want to make.
2 To Be Honest, Joe Exotic Is No Stranger Than His Peers
Tiger King focused on Joe Exotic but also introduced other nefarious zookeepers who are every bit as bizarre as the star.
Take Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, for example, who owns Myrtle Beach Safari. Antle has a lot of big cats … and a lot of women. (Wives? Girlfriends? Harem?) Teenagers and twenty-somethings, aka “apprentices,” flock to him to gain experience working with exotic animals. He grooms them, they sleep with him. A bond is established, and the women stay for years. Like a cult.
The show featured one such apprentice who worked under Antle for eight years. She joined the “cohesive family unit” hoping to practice yoga and train animals. Instead, she worked twelve hours a day–every day–in exchange for $100 a week, roach-infested accommodations, and an unsolicited breast augmentation.
Like Joe Exotic, Doc Antle makes a lot of money charging people for up-close encounters with tiger cubs and other exotic animals (prices range from $100 to $539). Unfortunately, no one knows for sure what happens to most of the cubs when they become too big to cuddle. Baskin says he euthanizes them. Antle admits nothing.
In Miami, there’s Mario Tabraue. In 1987, Tabraue was arrested on racketeering and narcotics charges. He was allegedly the kingpin of a $75 million illegal drug operation in South Florida and was accused of using a machete to dismember the body of a federal informant who had been murdered by his own men. In 1987, Tabraue was sentenced to 100 years behind bars but, because he turned informant for federal authorities, was released after serving 12 years. (Tiger King included clips from Scarface in honor of Tabraue, who is said to be the inspiration for Tony Montana.)
Since his release, Tabraue has devoted his energy to his Miami zoo, the Zoological Wildlife Foundation. Children under 18 can enjoy an hour-long sloth encounter for $35, while a “special wildlife encounter” costs $700 per person. While he continues to come under harsh criticism for owning exotic animals, the murderous drug lord appears to be the sanest zookeeper of the bunch.
Then there’s Jeff Lowe. Lowe came along to rescue Joe Exotic when his zoo was going under. He and his wife Lauren took Joe’s tiger cubs to Las Vegas to make money and “get girls.” In Lowe’s words: “A little pussy gets you a lot of pussy.” He bragged about orgies, swinging, and the hot new nanny he hired for his pregnant wife. (She could stand in while Lauren got her body back in shape.) “If you’re gonna bring in one, why bring in one that’s not enjoyable to look at?”
Lowe entered the scene as an angel investor but soon moved to co-ownership of the G.W. Zoo. Before long, he was the sole owner. (The series interviews featured a lot of talk about how he “stole the zoo from Joe.”) The zoo continues to run, and ticket prices range from $15 for general admission to $175 for VIP tours.
1 Everyone On Tiger King Has Terrible Taste in Clothes
John Reinke is the dedicated zoo manager with prosthetic legs. Not your typical fake appendages, mind you. Reinke’s are covered in graphic art. Like his colleague John Finlay, who opts to go shirtless to show off his tattoos, Reinke rarely covers his legs with pants. (Note: While one might think that zoo manager with no legs suffered a tiger encounter, Reinke’s legs were lost to a ziplining accident.)
For someone who claims he’s not a cult leader, Doc Antle sure does dress like one. He strolls around in breezy tunics, sandals, ponytail, and soul patch. Antle dresses his associates (harem) as well. He dons them in costumey tigerstripe unitards and tacky club clothes to lure in customers. Handling big cats is difficult enough when wearing practical clothing!
Jeff Lowe is quite the spectacle, too. The supposed millionaire is stuck in a gone-bye era. When he’s not trying too hard in head-to-toe Harley Davidson gear he’s sporting dated Ed Hardy-style apparel and ripped jeans that are way too young for him.
Rick Kirkham is the chain-smoking, coffee-guzzling, Crocodile Dundee of documentary filmmaking. Full stop.
Predictably enough, it’s nothing but animal print for Carole Baskin. But even though Baskin is a multi-millionaire, she’s not investing in high-end fashion. At her big cat sanctuary, she might pair a pink leopard caftan with a crown of flowers, giving off a hippie vibe. When she lobbies to protect big cats, she flaunts an outfit of cheetah print and pearls. “It’s almost a uniform,” she explained. “When I got in to talk with a legislator, if I go in there dressed head-to-toe in cat prints, people remember, ‘Oh, that’s the person that’s going to be all over my case about why cats need to be protected.” It’s a wonder her husband Howard is able to find her among her home decor, which includes furniture, vases, wall hangings, towels, and more in an array of big-cat patterns.
Joe Exotic has a pretty extensive (albeit terrible) fashion range. His blonde mullet, undyed ‘stache, and tattooed eyeliner are ever-present, but his outfits run the gamut from cowboy to priest to king (or, perhaps, queen?). A glimpse of his closet reveals an entire row of fringed leather jackets but also has plenty of flannel and an even better supply of sequins. Joe always covers his ‘do with a hat and almost always dons a firearm and bullets as part of his ensemble.
As they say: You can’t make this stuff up. In one season, Tiger King generated more television entertainment than anyone could have anticipated. Now, fans sit back and wait for answers to the big questions. Will the big cat zoos be shut down? Will Carole Baskin be reinvestigated for Don Lewis’s disappearance? Will Joe Exotic be pardoned? Stay tuned.