The wild true story behind Netflix’s Tiger King – and how accurate the series really is

Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin's long running feud is just as wild as the Netflix Tiger King docuseries portrays it

Tiger King Joe Exotic

Tiger King is a wild ride where men wrestle with big cats, a woman’s arm is ripped off, a feud escalates into a hit-for-hire, and zoos look an awful lot like cults – all in a mere seven episodes.

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Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries uncovers the world of big cats and those who collect them, focusing on Joe Exotic, a zookeeper turned prisoner, and his long-running feud with animal activist Carole Baskin.

Covering everything from polygamy to big cats and hits-for-hire, Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is from the same minds as Abducted in Plain Sight and Fyre, so it’s probably not that surprising that it’s just as crazy.

The series focuses on Joseph Maldonado-Passage, 57, aka ‘Joe Exotic’, one of the most prolific tiger owners in the US.

The self-professed “gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet” ran a big cat zoo in Oklahoma for years before he was sent to prison this year for plotting to murder his arch-rival Carole Baskin, from Big Cat Rescue.

While the outside world just saw Joe as eccentric, a man who cuddled up against cubs, toured malls with his big cats whilst decked out in glittery leopard-print shirts, bleached blonde hair and tattoos, a lot more was going on behind the camera.

For 20 years, Joe enjoyed a celebrity status, breeding his cats including a hybrid liger (mixing a male lion and female tiger) as well as running his own TV station.

He presented his own show, released country music and even opened his own version of Hooters, dubbed Zooters, with male waiters.

But all wasn’t as it seemed, behind his celebrity lifestyle he was battling against animal activist Carole Baskin.

Joe faced accusations of animal cruelty, abuse and lawsuits – including a copyright battle with Baskin herself. Baskin faced accusations she’d killed her missing husband and fed him to her tigers (there is no evidence to support this and she has never been charged).

Netflix’s series details the ins-and-outs of Joe’s bizarre lifestyle and the world of big cat breeding.

Filmmakers first learnt about Joe via the true crime podcast Joe Exotic: Tiger King, but it was Baskin who really drew their attention to the zoo keeper.

Baskin had a ‘hit list’ of animal owners – Joe was her “no 1 bad guy” for breeding cubs for petting. There was no love lost either side with Joe mocking Baskin publicly, even sending her venomous snakes in the post and shooting a dummy named after her, while Baskin actively tried to get Joe’s zoo shut down.

Here’s the true story of Tiger King and Joe Exotic’s feud with Carole Baskin.

Who is Joe Baskin?

Joe talks about his childhood in the docuseries, revealing it was fraught with problems. His interest in animals started at a very young age, according to Texas Monthly.

The young Joe shot birds with BB guns only to inject them with water to try and revive them. He brought home raccoons and ferrets.

One of four children, he lived on a farm in Kansas. Despite coming from a larger family, Joe wasn’t close to his siblings except for older brother, Garold Wayne.

Tiger King
Tiger King

Things really came to a head when one of his siblings outed him to his father.

“He made me shake his hand and promise not to come to his funeral in front of my mother,” Joe said.

Upset and now estranged from his parents, Joe tried to kill himself by crashing his car. Miraculously, he survived the crash, though he was injured. It marked a turning point.

Joe bought a pet shop with his first husband Brian Rhyne (though gay marriage hadn’t been legalised yet) and brother Garold.

Then tragedy struck again. In 1997, Garold died from injuries sustained in a car accident – a moment Joe talks about in the docuseries. His brother was hit by a drunk driver.

Using $140,000 from a settlement won by his family, Joe bought 16 acres of land in his memory and installed nine cages dedicating it to his brother and naming it The Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park, or GW Zoo.

At first, he only had a deer, buffalo and a mountain lion, but soon he had people dropping off tigers and other creatures.

By the year 2000, Joe had his own tigers, Tess and Tickles, who went on to have cubs.

The year after, Brian died from an infection, leaving Joe alone again.

The zoo continued to grow though, and soon housed 89 cats and more than 1,000 creatures.

Baskin and Joe’s long-running feud

As the zoo’s fame grew so did Joe’s celebrity status. He changed his name to Joe Exotic to help sell his illusionist show as well as his petting zoo that toured the country and travelled from mall to mall. He charged people for photo ops.

By now, he was on the radar of animal activists – especially Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue in Florida.

As Joe travelled around allowing kids to join animals in cages, Baskin had her team ring ahead trying to convince mall owners to change their minds and stop Joe performing.

Despite her efforts, Joe made money from the shows, with his second husband arguing he made up to $10,000 from one mall show sometimes.

Tiger King

He created content for his TV shows, Joe Exotic TV and Joe Gone Wild, and posted to YouTube, where his channel is still live.

He continued to breed his animals with former employees claiming he got between $1,500 and $10,000 for hybrid cubs.

PETA and the authorities were also now on to his illegal activity and issued fines for illegal animal trading. PETA even had undercover footage showing staff hitting the animals, though the staff deny they did this in the docuseries.

Baskin went to extreme lengths, asking her fans online to email the malls too and plead with them to end the shows.

At first, Baskin is shown as a woman who loves cats and only cares about their rights, but as Tiger King rumbles on viewers realise there’s more beneath the surface.

The feud between the two would eventually come to a head.

Staff off the streets

Baskin’s issues with Joe didn’t just lay with his breeding of big cats, she also talks about his staff.

Joe found most of his staff on Craigslist; picking up everyone from the homeless to drug addicts, or those on the run from other states.

Some of his staff talk about Joe as if he rescued them, “it keeps me out of trouble” they tell the camera, but Baskin points out they are all vulnerable.

The employees lived in insect-infested trailers, with cockroaches and huge rats running among their possessions.

Workers later complained Joe got them addicted to drugs, others said he tried to kick them out if they challenged him. The theme throughout was his battle for control akin to a cult leader.

Staff reportedly threw live animals into the tiger cages, or they’d shoot them for their amusement.

Joe was also seen running over emus so he could sell the bones.

Who is Carole Baskin?

While this was all going on Joe was battling Carole Baskin, the ‘Mother Theresa of Cats’ and owner of the sanctuary in Florida.

At first, Tiger King maintains this saintly image by showing the many fans she has and the work her sanctuary does rescuing tigers, but this soon moves on to her more controversial background.

The feud wasn’t a simple one and stemmed from several disagreements. Baskin had asked GW Zoo to stop breeding cats several times, going so far as trying to put Joe out business.

Meanwhile, Joe saw Baskin as a hypocrite arguing she also made money off big cats selling tickets to her sanctuary.

Joe visited the sanctuary with his husband and team filming covertly. He also filmed videos where he read aloud passages of Baskin’s diary, which a former employee of her’s stole and posted online.

Carole Baskin and husband Don’s disappearance

The videos suggested Baskin had killed her former husband, millionaire Don.

Baskin talks about how she met Don one night as she cried walking the streets. She’d argued with her husband and walked out when Don saw her as he drove by.

“He had a gun on the seat of his car, he said hold the gun on him – he just wanted to talk,” Baskin said. “So I held the gun on him.”

Anne McQueen, Don’s assistant, isn’t a fan of Baskin saying: “She was very ambitious. She didn’t want to stay walking down the street in the middle of the night…”

In 1994, Don, who bred cats himself, went missing. Baskin was thrown into the spotlight as she faced accusations of foul play. The police have never charged her.

Before his disappearance, Don left a letter with McQueen containing a restraining order he’d taken out against his wife, Baskin. In it, he claims: “This is the second time Carole has got angry enough to threaten me…” He adds that she threatened to kill him.

Tiger King: Carole and Don
Tiger King: Carole and Don
Netflix

He handed the letter to McQueen in June and went missing in August.

Baskin says the last thing he said to her was he was going “very, very early the next day to Costa Rica” where he had business dealings.

His friend Kenny said that when they spoke, he’d said: “If I pull this off it’ll be the slickest thing in my life…” but he never learnt what Don meant to ‘pull off’.

The case remains open though Baskin had Don declared dead five years and a day after his disappearance. There’s no evidence supporting his family’s claims Baskin killed Don even though they keep airing the claims to the media.

Joe’s political campaign

While Joe continued to post his videos campaigning for her arrest, Joe changed the name of his zoo from GW Zoo to Baskin’s company name to try and trick her fans. The plan backfired as Baskin sued him in 2011 for trademark infringement in a $1million lawsuit.

Facing such a large legal bill, Joe declared bankruptcy and turned over the zoo to Jeff Lowe, another big cat keeper, who faced accusations of domestic abuse. Lowe still owns the zoo, but he has plans to relocate it closer to Texas, according to Oklahoma News 4.

Joe remained at the zoo and turned his hand to politics, running unsuccessful campaigns for president in 2015 and governor of Oklahoma in 2018. His campaign was predictably fraught with controversy. He was accused of throwing Tiger King-branded condoms into a crowd where there were children at his zoo.

Joe’s life was falling apart before his eyes. In 2017, his other husband Travis Maldonado shot himself in the work office. As Joe dealt with his financial issues and his grief, his hatred for Baskin continued to burn.

Tiger King: Joe Exotic
Tiger King: Joe Exotic

How did Joe end up in prison?

Everything reached a head that year when Joe attempted to have Baskin killed by paying an employee in a botched hit-for-hire when they ran off with the cash.

The FBI was already looking into the alleged abuse at the zoo so when they found out about the hit-for-hire, Joe’s days were numbered. An undercover agent was sent in and when Joe tried to approach them with $3,000 to kill Baskin, it was all over.

Joe was found guilty on 21 counts in 2019 including for plotting to kill Baskin, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act by falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, according to New York Times.

In January, this year he was sentenced to 22 years in prison and is currently serving time in Grady County Jail, Oklahoma.

The lead prosecutor said at the end of his trial said: “The Tiger King: that’s how [Joe] has marketed himself and lived his life. But here’s the thing with kings — they start to believe they’re above the law.”

Baskin still runs the Big Cat Sanctuary, streaming live to her fans. She spoke to Vanity Fair recently about the docuseries.

“I think for Joe, [the feud] was probably very personal because people said there wasn’t a day in his life that he wasn’t ranting and raving, and carrying on and calling out my name,” she said. “But for me, he was just one of about a dozen of these bad guys that I was exposing online, talking to reporters about, and saying, ‘no, conservation [does not mean] breeding tigers for use as pay-to-play props.”

Keen that the docuseries didn’t overstate the feud, she added: “He wasn’t a big part of my life in any way, and to have it be this great story… it’s been really frustrating for that to be the perception that he was some huge part of my life.”

Joe maintains his innocence and still believes that people will take his side now Tiger King has aired. Posting on Facebook, he said: “Now that the Netflix series is out, I can not watch it, but if you see … the people who set me up … please share this with a law firm that may help me get out of here.”

Whether he is successful remains to be seen, but when he says from prison: “Do you know why animals die in cages? Their soul dies,” you can’t help but feel the irony is still lost on him.

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Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is now on Netflix. Check out our best Netflix series page for more shows to watch or our TV guide to see what’s on tonight.