Summarizing Joe Exotic is about as difficult as keeping him in a cage. Yet that’s where the Oklahoma roadside zookeeper is after being sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for animal abuse and the attempted murder-for-hire of Carole Baskin, his bitter rival in the wildlife game. Joe’s collection of creative projects numbered almost as high as his list of criminal convictions.
The gun-toting, mullet-sporting, flamboyantly gay founder of the G.W. Exotic Animal Park is the star of Netflix’s new documentary series Tiger King and the eponymous podcast that preceded it. His relentless quest for fame included a self-produced reality show, failed political campaigns, and a surprisingly impressive music career. Like all multi-level marketers, Joe is a con man, but there’s a sincere passion behind his every artistic choice that somehow makes you want to buy what he’s selling.
Born in rural Kansas with the less glamorous name Joseph Schreibvogel, he reinvented himself in the late 1990s as the libertarian Liberace of big cats. Up until his arrest, the 57-year-old outlaw cowboy would fight anyone to death for his right to own guns, raise tigers, and marry his two husbands. He’s as proud of his animal park as his Prince Albert piercing. Imagine Gates of Heaven if Jon Wurster or Danny McBride created its characters, and you’ll start to be able to smell him.
Throughout the dozens of articles that have been written about Joe Exotic, one thing that hasn’t been highlighted nearly enough is his country music. Lil Nas X, Orville Peck, and Trixie Mattel might be the current poster children for a queer country renaissance, but down in Oklahoma, Joe was busy cooking up his homebrewed version since 2013. Tiger King is interspersed with clips from his music videos, which utilize reality-TV-quality production values to embody their songs’ very literal concepts.
“Here Kitty Kitty” is Joe’s most popular video with over 400,000 views, and it’s probably the one you’ll see first. It features a scarily accurate Baskin impersonator feeding her pets raw mystery meat. This is based on the rumored method she used to dispose of the body of her multi-millionaire husband, who’s been missing since 1997. It’s yet another true crime case in the cutthroat community of animal park owners that remains unsolved to this day.
Viewed in the context of his relentless YouTube vlogging, Joe’s videos provide a dream-logic scrapbook of everything that happened in his life over the past seven years. “My First Love” is a sweet ode to his second husband, John Finlay, while “How Was I To Know” is a beat-driven tribute to his third husband, the late Travis Maldonado.
“Pretty Woman Lover” is a baffling attempt to show off how irresistible Joe is to ladies, which may have been timed to impress voters during his 2016 presidential run. However, he never bested his very first video, “I Saw a Tiger,” a legitimately moving song about the moment Joe found his lifelong connection to big cats. Naturally, even on his most tender ballad, he can’t help but compare their killing to the Holocaust.
The documentary, however, never reveals what may have been one of his greatest gifts: He may have lip-synced all of his songs. An article from Vanity Fair alleges that Joe’s songs were ghostwritten and performed by musicians Vince Johnson and Danny Clinton. Johnson says he was tricked into writing the songs for free with the promise of exposure on a reality show being bid on by major networks. When that never came to fruition, Johnson was disappointed, but asked only for proper attribution in the documentary series’ credits. “When it finally ended, I told him they could have filmed Gone With the Wind for all I cared,” he says, “let alone a crummy reality show starring a jerk-off con man kook.”
Tiger King was made for these strange times of self-isolation. The series has all the hallmarks of a binge-worthy sensation: true crime, small-town American settings, and characters so over the top that they barely seem believable. Yet what sets this seven-part saga apart from hits like Making A Murderer or the podcast S-Town is the wildness on display from both animals and humans. Alongside big jungle cats and other endangered creatures held in captivity, the show stars a man who stands apart from every imaginable pack.
Joe used the animals at his park as Trojan horses to make himself the main attraction. While presiding over every aspect of its ramshackle operations, he hired veteran producer Rick Kirkham to film him 24/7. This footage was used for daily updates on the Joe Exotic TV YouTube channel, with the larger goal of creating a network reality show that would surely appeal to fans of Duck Dynasty or Crikey! It’s The Irwins.
In 2016, Joe set out on his most ambitious publicity stunt of running for president (“Make America Exotic Again”), earning incredulous coverage from John Oliver. Later, Joe set his sights on an independent campaign for governor that included parade floats, a pro-marijuana-legalization agenda, and novelty condoms. Joe’s gubernatorial Twitter account with its #fixthisshit slogan is a direct portal into his visions for the future.
At this point it remains unclear if Joe is truly behind the contract-killing plot, or if he was framed by Las Vegas hustler and fellow big-cat enthusiast Jeff Lowe, who now owns the zoo after Exotic’s arrest. (Although throughout the documentary, Joe brags about how he would kill Baskin with the cameras rolling, which could play a preemptive version of O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It if you believe he’s guilty.) However, the documentary seems to make clear that he’s guilty of other things he was charged for. Thanks to the testimony of his longtime park employees, Joe was convicted on 17 federal charges of animal abuse, including cub breeding, falsifying documents, and burying tiger bodies beneath the ground of his property. Some of the documentary’s most stomach-turning sequences reveal that he fed his animals expired meat from Walmart that was also eaten by staff members earning far less than minimum wage. Caring for the creatures and people that were in his kingdom seemed less important to him than maintaining the appearance of a perfect jungle wonderland.
Joe’s personal life provides as much of Tiger King’s intrigue as his alleged crimes do. The documentary shows that Joe kept his two husbands on a short leash with a steady diet of meth. Both the heavily tattooed Finlay and 6’6” Maldonado were 19 when they met him, and their three-way wedding ceremony is a true sight to behold. Yet this is just the beginning of their modern romance on display, as they share every moment from Finlay’s pink camo guns to Maldonado ripping around the park on ATVs like an overcompensating Instagram couple. While it’s later revealed that neither man is gay after Finlay runs off with the pregnant park secretary, Maldonado’s story is far more tragic. The friendly giant longboarder is glassy-eyed from the moment he appears on screen, and his end comes when he accidentally shoots himself in the head. Maldonado’s funeral is yet another surreal artistic platform for Joe, who performs an original song as the mother of the deceased looks on in tears. Two months later, he marries another weed- and video-game-loving young man named Dillon, adding a hyphen to his last name to become Joe Maldonado-Passage. It might be a pattern, but at least Joe’s creatively consistent.
There are countless other characters in Tiger King that could have been the focus of their own series. Baskin describes herself as the “Mother Teresa of Big Cats” with an obsession to rescue animals from parks like Joe’s and place them in her own sanctuary. Of course, she also charges visitors admission while employees work around the clock without pay. (In the broadest possible comedic irony, Baskin is allergic to cats.) Doc Antle, owner of the Myrtle Beach Safari park and Joe’s longtime mentor, would have been a meaty role for Philip Seymour Hoffman. Asking employees to call him Bhagavan instead of his birth name, Kevin, the doctor of “mystical science” allegedly has a harem of wives in his cult-like organization, T.I.G.E.R.S (The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species). Joe doesn’t hide his jealousy of Antle’s polygamist empire, and is transparent in his attempts to emulate it.
Joe’s animal park employees are a motley crew of a different stripe, but you have to give him credit for inclusivity. Among the troubled law-breakers welcomed into his family is John Reinke, a former professional bungee jumper who now drives a Hummer with his prosthetic legs, which are covered in drawings of evil clowns. Yet the most captivating character is Kelci “Saff” Saffery, a Hawaiian man who lost his arm to a tiger and turned down the option of reconstructive surgeries or a prosthetic. He faithfully returned to the park after only five days, and according to LinkedIn, still works there.
In a New York Magazine article by Robert Moor, who also helmed the Joe Exotic podcast, the journalist explains how Joe’s life may have been an artful fabrication from day one. After becoming a police chief for the 503 residents of Eastvale, Texas (publicly dating a woman while exploring Dallas’s gay club scene), Joe says he drove his cruiser off a bridge in an attempt to end his life. This allegedly left him with a broken back, laid up in traction for months before he moved to Florida to enter an experimental “salt water rehabilitation program.” But Joe’s family members don’t remember the crash, and his boyfriend at the time says they just went snorkeling.
Regardless of what really brought him to Florida, the trip introduced Joe to a friend who worked at a drive-through zoo. This sparked his love of jungle cats, and when Joe moved back to Texas, he bought a pet store with the help of his brother Garold Wayne. Pet Safari marked the true birth of Joe Exotic, as he performatively courted gay clientele with rainbow-colored doggy t-shirts. At this time, Joe also married his first husband, Brian Rhyne, another 19-year-old whom he met at a gay cowboy bar called the Round-Up Saloon, decades before marriage between two men was legal.
When Wayne lost his life to a car accident in 1997, Joe’s parents won a settlement from the trucking company that caused their son’s death. After some arguments about the best way to honor his life, they agreed to buy a horse ranch in Oklahoma and transform it into the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. At that time, it was known as the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park, or the G.W. Zoo for short. Fast forward 23 years and we arrive in the mess of trouble where the overlord of big cats is today.
After watching Tiger King and listening to the podcast, Joe’s music videos are the most vivid prism through which we can view the artist as he saw himself. In his silk tiger-print shirts, trucker hats, and leather pants, he becomes Chris Gaines on amphetamines. Or maybe Chris Dane Owens is an even more apt comparison, with an obsessive commitment to fantasy world building. Whether singing the praises of bikers or bringing in a guest rapper to protest elephant poachers, Joe used these videos to project his imagination for a better world.
Throughout the endless scroll of uploads on his multiple YouTube channels, Joe showcases a stubborn pursuit of celebrity with an unwillingness to be anyone else. That mind-set may be simple, but it raises primal questions. Are his loving relationships and reign over the animal park industry lies if he believed them? Can we separate the art from the artist if the creator himself is a living project? Joe Exotic might be a criminal, but his captivating wildness cast a powerful spell over friends, fans, and foes. If I’m being perfectly honest, I fell in love with him too.
Jesse Locke is a writer whose work has appeared in Aquarium Drunkard, Bandcamp Daily, and Musicworks Magazine.