Madness and mayhem: inside the bizarre world of the Tiger King

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Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness had millions of people glued to their TV screens as episode after jaw-dropping episode unfolded. (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness had millions of people glued to their TV screens as episode after jaw-dropping episode unfolded. (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)

It was one of the runaway hits of lockdown – a shock documentary with so much drama and a cast of such bizarre characters you just couldn’t make it up.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness had millions of people glued to their TV screens as episode after jaw-dropping episode unfolded.

There were big cats and rednecks, there was polygamy, there were arch enemies, there was murder for hire…

And now there’s even more drama. During the Netflix show there was plenty of criticism of the way the tigers – many of them grossly overweight – and other animals were housed in the park run by Joe Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic.

Now the park has been closed down and its animal exhibition licence suspended. Crowds used to throng to the park to see the animals up close and even pet them but those days, it seems, are no more.

So what’s happened?

The US department of agriculture recently ordered Greater Wynnwood Exotic Animal Park to cease operations with immediate effect.

An inspection found numerous animal welfare violations. For example, the only cold storage for animal food was a broken refrigerator truck that park officials claimed had recently been fixed.

"The inspectors asked for the invoices for the repairs and were handed an invoice for a tractor repair," the report says.

The move has been hailed by animal rights activists. “We look forward to seeing every one of the long-suffering animals being transferred to an appropriate facility,” says Brittany Peet of animal rights group Peta.

She also called for the licence of current owner Jeffrey Lowe to be permanently revoked.

Jeffrey, however, remains defiant. In a post on the zoo’s Facebook page he indicated activity at the park would continue despite the public being denied access.

"Our new park will, at least for the foreseeable future, be a private film set for Tiger King related television content for cable and streaming services," the post said.

“The Tiger King phenomenon has definitely changed our lives in many ways. It has brought us more attention than any human deserves, good and bad. It has and probably will continue to make us a target of every nutjob and animal rights loon in the world, but we are prepared.”

What’s happened to Joe Exotic?

The gun-toting, mullet-wearing, blue mascara-loving, foul-mouthed owner of the zoo was sentenced to 22 years in prison in April for masterminding a murder plot, killing tigers and other animal welfare violations.

He was found him guilty of trying to hire a hitman to kill his arch enemy, animal rights activist Carole Baskin, in November 2017.

In the doccie, Joe is portrayed with a giant chip on his shoulder that ultimately led to his incarceration in a cell smaller than those in which he kept his 200-plus tigers and other big cats.

Exotic – or just plain crazy?

“He was like a mythical character living out in the middle of Bumf***, Oklohama” is how TV producer Rick Kirkham describes Joe Exotic.

The show is like a train wreck – you want to look away but you just can’t. Joe is a wildly over-the-top character who inspires devotion in some of his staff and loathing from his business partner and animal rights activists.

He struts around his park, shirt unbuttoned to his navel, showing off mewling baby tigers.

Joe is married to Joe Finlay, a much-tattooed younger man with a shortage of front teeth, but that doesn’t stop him falling for another teenager, Travis Maldonado. Weirdly, both Joe and Travis deny they are gay.

At one point in the show Travis accidentally blows his brains out in front of Joe’s political campaign manager – Joe was running for president, and then governor -- and within two months Joe marries another teenager Dillon Passage, who remains devoted to him to this day.

(Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
TV producer Rick Kirkham Rick Kirkham (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)

Exotic enemy No 1

Carole Baskin, who runs an operation called Big Cat Reserve, waged a successful crusade to put Joe out of business after he embarked on a vicious hate campaign against her.

A judgment against Joe forced him to search for funding to keep his park going and he ended up in business with Jeff Lowe, a dodgy financier from Las Vegas. 

Jeff eventually played a big part in getting Joe convicted on murder-for-hire charges – and take over control of the park himself.

Carole is less than impressed by the way she was portrayed in Tiger King. She and Howard, her millionaire Prince Charles lookalike husband, offered many interviews to the producers under the impression they were stitching up Joe after his sustained campaign of viciousness over the years.

But Carole got more than she bargained for when an entire episode was devoted to the mysterious disappearance of her first husband, Don Lewis, just as he was on the verge of divorcing her.

Damning allegations are made in the show – by Don’s former wife and his daughters, among others – that Carole murdered or arranged the murder of her husband, and then put him through a meat grinder and fed him to her animals.

As a result of the show, a cold case missing person case might be reopened and Carole could come under investigation again.

“I just feel so angry that people have totally missed the point,” Carole (58) told the Tampa Bay Times.

“There’s almost no way to describe the intensity of the feeling of betrayal,” Howard says.

Let’s not forget the animals

Tiger King was criticised in some quarters for focusing too much on the humans that populate the documentary and less on the serious issue of animal abuse. Joe professes throughout the series to love his animals yet anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise.

In an extra episode of the show TV producer Rick Kirkham recalls a woman tearfully bringing her ageing horse to him, begging Joe to let her pet live out its days at his park. He reassures her but as soon as she is gone he puts a bullet through the horse’s head and feeds the body to his tigers.

Rick claims Joe was more frightened of his animals than he let on.

“When you see Joe in a cage with a tiger, the tiger was either blind or it was sedated. He was terrified of these tigers. He was scared of all the animals. I remember a peacock landing on him and he freaked out. He broke its neck and fed it to the tigers.”

Joe was accused of killing off his tigers once they were no longer pliable cubs and suitable for petting. Make no mistake, the big cats in the park are capable of chaos. In one gruesome scene, employee Kelci “Saff” Saffery has his arm ripped off by a cat.

Filmmakers Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode believe the show highlighted the mistreatment of animals.

“We wanted people to come away from this series understanding that patronising roadside zoos is not something that helps any animals whatsoever,” Rebecca told the Washington Post. “Wild animals do not belong in captivity.”

“We wanted to tell the story, but at the end have the takeaway be that there was horrible suffering and exploitation of these cats,” Eric said.

(Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
Tigers rescued from Joe Exotic aka The Tiger King Joe (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)

Global fame at last

The show spawned a thousand memes and celebrities including Kim Kardashian West and Cardi B tweeted about the series. Cardi B even started a GoFundMe for Joe’s release.

In his first TV role, Nicolas Cage is to star as Joe Exotic in a new eight-part series on the Tiger King. The casting was a disappointment to Joe who told the Hollywood Reporter from jail that Brad Pitt and David Spade were his preferred choices. Jared Leto and Dax Shepherd also expressed interest in playing Joe on social media.

Despite being behind bars, Joe Exotic has finally achieved the fame he has always craved.

“He’s always wanted to be a star,” Chaiklin says. “And suddenly the irony of ironies is that he’s incarcerated. And that’s part of the reason that he became a star.”


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