Premiering at the start of the pandemic in 2020, viewers were immediately sucked into the former Oklahoma zookeeper’s bonkers world, which was filled with mistreated big cats, wheeling and dealing, throuple relationships, misfits working at a drug-infested zoo, shady characters of the exotic animal world, and perhaps most riveting: a vendetta against Carole Baskin.
Despite his knack for spinning wild stories bursting with outlandish claims and his erratic yet charismatic personality, the reality star (real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage) is by no stretch of the imagination a saintly character.
Joe Exotic had been sitting in a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, until this week when he was transported to a medical facility in North Carolina to treat an aggressive cancer diagnosis, according to his attorney. After his arrest in 2018, he was convicted of 19 counts of wildlife crimes, including killing five “healthy” tigers, and two counts for trying to hire a hitman to murder his archenemy Baskin, earning him a 22-year prison sentence in January 2020.
Beyond his crimes for which he is now serving time for, his former employees and lovers describe him as being a nightmare, alleging he was abusive, controlling, and cruelly mistreated the animals in his care.
But Joe Exotic is still adamant that he’s innocent, as he continues to advocate for his release, claiming the tigers he killed were sickly and that he had no idea about the murder-for-hire plot against Baskin, pinning the harebrained scheme on his former business partner Jeff Lowe, who later took control of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park.
The 58-year-old pulls out all the stops to try and earn sympathy from the public in his new biography Tiger King: The Official Tell-All Memoir, released on Nov. 23, declaring that he wishes he wasn’t associated with the sensation at all, as he paints everyone in his life as the villain, including his estranged husband Dillon Passage, ex-zoo employees and business partners, the government, and even takes aim at Donald Trump—all the while spitting more venom at Baskin.
It’s the same shtick that Exotic used in Tiger King, where everyone in his life seemed to be out to get him, before the viewer realized he might not be giving them the whole truth.
In his tell-all, Exotic is still hellbent on getting even with Baskin and in the first sentence of his book he spits, “Dear American Public, can you believe that bitch Carole Baskin is out there free as a bird while I’m sitting here rotting away in prison?”
Exotic sorta admits his own mistakes as he traces the events of his life that led to him being behind bars. But he seems to believe his transgressions are nothing compared to those he deems did him wrong, going for the jugular of former friends, lovers, and colleagues, including those who are no longer here to defend themselves.
But there are moments when the former zookeeper allows himself to be vulnerable, detailing the lowest moments of his life, including being ostracized from his family in the 1980s when his older brother outed him and the 2001 death of his first husband Brian Rhyne, who died of complications from HIV. He admits the suicide of his third husband, 23-year-old Travis Maldonado in 2017, drove him to attempt suicide himself due to his overwhelming grief.
Exotic also claims for the first time that he was physically and sexually assaulted as a child by his father Francis Schreibvogel, who died in 2021. “What I’m about to tell you I’ve never told anyone in my life, I can only say it now because my dad is no longer here to deal with the shame and all his brothers and sisters are gone as well,” he writes.
“My father abused me; in every possible way a child can be abused. I remember sitting in his pickup truck out in the field, with no one around to help me, and he’d make me touch his penis. This happened many times… I felt completely helpless, nowhere to run and no one to help me. The sexual abuse Dad put me through ended around the time I was eight, but he continued to beat on me.”
Exotic claims his older brother Yarri Schreibvogel also molested him, alleging that “soon after my dad started in on me, my brother Yarri began sexually abusing me as well.”
“Yarri used to take me in the bathroom, pull a bottom drawer out to block the door, and make me have sex with him. Yarri kept on abusing me, for several years, until we left Kansas,” he alleges. (Schreibvogel previously denied that he sexually abused Exotic, but recently agreed that his father was physically abusive toward his children.)
It’s clear that Exotic thinks he’s the one who’s been burnt the worst in his personal saga, incredulous that he’s behind bars despite the heaps of evidence presented against him, believing that while he unfairly suffers, everyone else in his life is thriving.
But he ignores the fact that since the international success of Tiger King, tragedy and scandal has followed its cast, and few have found themselves in a better-off position because of their infamy.
That’s not to say these men and women are completely faultless either. Part of the reason Tiger King was so compelling was because there were so few redeemable characters—everyone seemed to be telling a half-truth or had an ulterior motive.
Baskin, who runs Florida’s Big Cat Rescue, became a breakout star of the series, but not in the way she would have imagined. The 60-year-old claimed the documentary was pitched to her as being the “Blackfish for big cats,” she told Today earlier this month. “We thought that'’s what we were working on.”
Instead, Baskin felt she was turned into “the villain,” as Exotic alleged Baskin killed her wealthy husband Don Lewis and fed his remains to her tigers, “whacking” him so she could inherit his multi-million dollar fortune. The allegation sparked a flurry of amateur sleuths digging into Baskin and the case, as Lewis’ body was never found after he went missing in 1997, eventually being declared legally dead in 2002.
Apart from a disastrous stint on Dancing with the Stars and her own docuseries on Discovery+, Carole Baskin’s Cage Fight, Baskin has attempted to distance herself from Tiger King, going as far as seeking an injunction against Tiger King 2, demanding it not use past footage of her and her current husband Howard Baskin. (Baskin ended up losing the legal fight, and the follow-up documentary premiered earlier this month.)
Exotic’s former business partner who took over the zoo, Jeff Lowe, and his wife Lauren were sued by the Department of Justice last year for the inhumane treatment and improper handling of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Officials were appalled at the conditions, detailing how one lion cub was so severely malnourished that it led to chronic bone fracture and lameness. This May after extensive warnings, the government seized “68 protected lions, tigers, lion-tiger hybrids, and a jaguar” from the zoo, citing extensive Endangered Species Act (ESA) violations.
Earlier this week, it was reported Jeff Johnson, a former reptile dealer and ex-friend of Exotic’s who made a brief appearance in Tiger King, committed suicide in September following an argument with his wife.
Zoo worker Erik Cowie, who teared up in the docuseries while talking about the mistreatment of animals at the zoo, was found dead in a New York City apartment in September, his cause of death later reported as acute and chronic alcohol use, according to the NYC Chief Medical Examiner. (Exotic alleges in his book that Cowie set a liger on fire and left him to rot on the zoo grounds, calling him a “drunken hypocrite” that Netflix falsely portrayed as a “big lover of animals.”)
Allen Glover, which Tiger King alleged was a hitman, has since been busted for a DUI and keeps changing his story about the circumstances of events around the plot to kill Baskin, suddenly claiming he and Lowe had actually planned to murder Exotic because Lowe was a 50% beneficiary of Exotic’s life insurance policy.
“We came up with a plan to decapitate Joe’s head, to kill him, to clear him away from the property so Jeff could take it over, animals and everything,” Glover claims in Tiger King 2.
Exotic’s book is another iteration of his superior showmanship skills, diverting attention away from his misdeeds by trying to curry sympathy via the half-admittance of wrongdoings, zingy one-liners, the airing of petty grievances, and a healthy dose of hypocrisy.
He shamelessly accuses his foes of things he has done, such as blasting Lowe and his wife for having a “sex den” on the grounds of the zoo, flying in young women from around the country to visit them, yet fails to mention that he frequently used to solicit sex from men on Craigslist to join him and his former husband John Finlay.
Exotic also rails against zoo employees and his former husbands for their alleged alcohol and drug addictions, while he’s been accused of keeping them hooked on drugs in order to keep them under his control.
He even gripes about former president Donald Trump, who he’d hoped would pardon him before he left office in 2020 but left him looking like “a dumbass.”
“Word has it I should have written a big check and I would have gotten that pardon, too,” he writes.
Exotic has always craved fame, evident in his failed ventures of trying to produce his own reality show, a doomed singing career, a touring magic roadshow, and even a run for Oklahoma governor in 2018.
But Exotic’s inability to take proper accountability for the serious accusations against him, such as how he treated his employees and lovers, and accusations of animal abuse, earns him little sympathy as he continues to try to clear his name.