LISTEN: Tiger King's Rick Kirkham tells us about life with Joe Exotic: 'Joe was much more evil and even crazier'

When Tiger King hit Netlfix in March, I was one of millions around the world who binged the docu-series and became instantly hooked on the crazy events that unfolded. 

If you have not seen it, then firstly, where have you been? But just to get you caught up, take a look at our review here.

The show's ratings skyrocketed, and every person featured in it became an instant celeb.

While some basked in their new-found fame, others, like Rick Kirkham, hoped the show would not take off the way it did. "I didn't think it was going to be that big a deal. And I had actually hoped the night that it premiered, I actually made a video-diary in which I said that hopefully it won't be seen by many people," Kirkham tells me during a telephonic interview. 

But as the coronavirus hit, and more people turned to streaming services as a source of entertainment, Tiger King exploded. "My life exploded along with it," Kirkham says. 

The producer, who moved to Norway, says he is recognised wherever he goes. "Are you 'Tiger Rick'? That's what they call me," he tells me as he describes how hundreds of fans have already approached him in public in hopes of getting a selfie.  

Now, just months after Tiger King took the world by storm, Rick Kirkham is sharing his version of events, opening up about what it was really like working with Joe Exotic in a new documentary titled, Surviving Joe Exotic.  

The film, which airs in South Africa on 11 June, will serve as Kirkham's final interview about the series. "When that comes out, I'm done," he declares, admitting that Tiger King has completely consumed his life.  

Aside from revealing what his time with Joe Exotic was like, the new documentary will also give fans a glimpse at what Kirkham's life is like now, and will take a look at who he was before.  

"You're going to see a Rick that nobody else has seen in my current life -- how I live right now, my wife, and what we do here." 

Inside the Tiger King's den 

Kirkham worked closely with Exotic for months, filming the zoo owner's daily activities in hopes of producing a documentary of his own. But, that film would never see the light of day after a fire engulfed the studio where hours of footage was stored.  

Though it was a suspected arson attack, no arrests were made. I was curious to find out if there had been any progress on the case. "No, the fire to this day remains a mystery," he tells me, before sharing his opinion on who he thinks may have been behind it. "The FBI has met with me on two occasions, and on the second occasion, they asked me my opinion, and I told them that in my opinion, since Joe had changed the lock on the studio two days before the fire, and the fact that that lock was still locked on the door when the fire occurred, that means somebody had to have had a key to get in. And the only one who had a key was Joe himself." 

Kirkham strikes me as a very calm, polite man throughout our conversation. In fact, before the interview starts, we indulge in a bit of small talk (admittedly, it was about the weather) and once we wrap things up, he mentions what a pleasure it was to speak to me and wishes me well. Yet, at the mention of Joe Exotic's name, he cannot seem to hide his disdain. While some who starred in Tiger King have accused the series of being highly sensationalised, he says it did not even begin to scratch the surface.  

"The documentary was so accurate and true, I was shocked myself. I'll be honest with you, Nikita, the documentary did not go far enough," he says, adding that "Joe was much more evil and crazier than what even the documentary could show."

Rick Kirkham, Joe Exotic


Though it may be hard to fathom now, things between Joe Exotic and Rick Kirkham actually started off on a positive note. It all took a turn for the worst when Exotic earned the nickname, "Tiger King".  

Kirkham explains: "It started getting bad three months or so into the year that I lived there. Three months in I decided to start calling him 'The King of Tigers' -- 'Tiger King'."  

A stage was set for the king -- sitting on a throne, covered in a robe, and surrounded by tigers -- and Kirkham and his team had the cameras rolling to capture it all.  

"After that moment, and that afternoon, it kind of went to his [Joe] head. And all of a sudden when he decided, and he became Tiger King, he started treating people worse, he started treating the animals worse, he started making demands of everybody as though he were a king."  

Joe Exotic is now serving a 22-year prison sentence after being convicted on charges relating to a murder-for-hire plot, and several charges relating to animal abuse. And in case you were wondering, Kirkham has no plans of speaking to the former zoo owner any time soon. "I have no need to be [in touch with him]. In fact, I don't ever want to hear his voice again -- that squeaky-ass voice," he says without thinking twice. He adds, however, that he has been in touch with other members of his studio crew and some of the animal trainers from the zoo. 

Speaking about the G.W. Zoo, which has reportedly now been rebranded as 'Tiger King Park' on social media by owner Jeff Lowe, Kirkham gives me an update on the business. "There's virtually another Joe Exotic coming in -- I'm not going to name his name -- and taking over and reopening the zoo. He's probably just as bad with the animals; he's got a terrible reputation in the animal world. So, I think the bottom line is that zoo needs to be closed down permanently."  

Surviving Joe Exotic premieres in SA on Thursday 11 June on ID (DStv 171) at 21:50.  

(Photo: Rick Kirkham, Joe Exotic/Supplied)