Joe Exotic Was The ‘Tiger King’ Until He Ended Up In A Cage Of His Own Making

In March of 2020, Netflix debuted the docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. The surreal show about Joe Exotic, the owner of the GW Zoo, was an instant hit. His story was as surreal as the man himself. Exotic claimed to own the most big cats in the United States, he had multiple marriages (at the same time), ran for Governor of his home state, ran for President of the United States, and was arrested for a deadly plot against one of his rivals. This is everything you need to know about the wild ride that is Tiger King.

Before He Owned Cats, Joe Was A Police Officer

joe exotic with lion
Netflix
Netflix

At a young age, before Joe Schreibvogel became Joe Exotic, the future big cat owner worked in law enforcement. He was living with a girlfriend and worked his way all the way up to Police Chief in Eastvale, Texas.

During this time in his life, Joe began exploring his own interests that weren’t socially accepted then. It was also during this time he crashed his police cruiser and broke his back, leading to him having to use the knee brace and cane seen in the docuseries.

John Finlay Was Joe’s Third Husband

john finlay tiger king
Netflix
Netflix

Early on in Tiger King, the audience is introduced to John Finlay, one of Joe Exotic’s ex-husbands. Before Joe married John, though, there were two other men who stole his heart. The first was Brian Rhyne.

Joe and Brian were married for ten years. The marriage ended when Rhyne passed away from complications with HIV. Joe next married J.C. Hartpence, a young Oklahoman who helped Exotic with his magic act. This marriage didn’t last for long, however, and ended when the two had competing visions about the direction of the GW Zoo.

He Made A Sheep Look Like A Tiger For His Magic Act

A picture taken in Lavau-sur-Loire, western France, on March 28, 2020, shows a ewe with her newborn lamb.
LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images
LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

Aaron Stone, a former assistant to Joe Exotic, revealed on a podcast the lengths Joe would go to be a showman. For one of his magic tricks, Joe would make a tiger appear out of thin air after a display of pyrotechnics.

The only problem, according to Stone, was that the animal would freak out at the sound every time and hide in the corner of the cage. To fix this problem, Joe began spray painting a sheep black and orange and lying to the audience about what kind of creature was revealed.

He’s Worth An Estimated $10-$15 Million

joe-exotic-net-worth
Netflix
Netflix

According to New York Magazine, Joe Exotic inherited a $250,000 trust fund from a wealthy grandfather. He used some of the money to start a mobile petting zoo that brought in around $23,000 a week, according to Joe, charging $15 for general admission.

From there, he got into the big cat breeding business which earned him plenty of money, and grew his zoo. However, Joe’s legal troubles have bogged down his net worth including being ordered to pay Big Cat Rescue $1 million in 2013. According to WikiCelebs, Joe’s net worth is an estimated $10-$15 million, due to his large social media following and newfound fame. With so many legal problems on the horizon though, it’s hard to say what his net worth will be in the coming years.

The Case Of Carole Baskin’s Missing Former Husband Continues

don-lewis-carole-baskin
Sheriff Chad Chronister of Hillsborough County/Netflix
Sheriff Chad Chronister of Hillsborough County/Netflix

One of the most gripping elements of Tiger King was the ongoing mystery of what happened to Carole Baskin’s former husband Jack “Don” Lewis. Last seen on August 18, 1997, his whereabouts and disappearance have yet to be solved, but his family isn’t giving up.

His family, along with Jack Smith, a man who has been trying to solve Lewis’ disappearance, announced they would be holding a press conference on August 10, 2020, to report their findings. However, many are skeptical that Jack Smith of “RipperJack Media” has anything of substance to report.

Exotic Didn’t Actually Write His Own Music

man with baby tiger
Netflix
Netflix

One of the most surprising aspects of Tiger King is that Joe Exotic has two country music albums. Several clips of his music videos are shown in the docuseries, and the audience is led to believe that Joe wrote and recorded all the songs himself.

The truth is that most of Joe’s songs were sourced from Vince Johnson and Danny Clinton, a country music duo. Joe would then lip-sync the tracks in his music videos. Joe also once took credit for writing and performing the Christina Aguilera song “Say Something.”

After Kirkham Left Joe Behind, His Apartment Burned Down

rick kirkham tiger king
J. Vespa/WireImage
J. Vespa/WireImage

Another fascinating character in Tiger King is Rick Kirkham. Before meeting Joe, he worked for Inside Edition and suffered from addiction. He became upset with Exotic while filming the docuseries after the reptile enclosure burned down. While this is all shown in the series, what happened next is not.

Kirkham returned home to Dallas and hoped his life would return to normal. Then his apartment burned down. Firefighters saved his life and Kirkham relocated to Norway, where he continues to live today.

Jeff Lowe Wanted To Sell Carole The Park… Maybe

jeff lowe with tiger
Netflix
Netflix

By the end of Tiger King, it’s revealed that the deadly plot against Carole Baskin was derailed when James Garretson became an informant for the FBI. That deal wasn’t the only one Garretson was a part of, though.

The businessman involved both Jeff Lowe and Allen Glover with the FBI, while at the same time brokering another deal. Knowing that Exotic was likely going to prison, Lowe reportedly offered Garretson $100,000 to make a deal with Carole Baskin to sell her the GW Zoo.

Joe Planned To Breed A Sabre-Tooth Tiger

a painting of a sabre toothed tiger
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

After seeing hybrid big cats at another park, Joe Exotic became fascinated by the idea himself. At the GW Zoo, he successfully bred a liger (a cross between a lion and tiger), which he then mated with a lion to create a liliger.

These simple hybrids weren’t enough for, Joe though. According to reports, Joe believed that by breeding hybrids, he could eventually breed a sabre-tooth tiger. While this is obviously impossible, the eccentric man was steadfast in his belief.

Joe Ran For President In 2016

joe exotic and one of his tigers
Netflix
Netflix

One year after legally changing his name from Joe Schreibvogel to Joe Maldonado, the tiger king announced his third-party candidacy for President of the United States. He said, “What’s my chances of winning? Who knows, you know? Pretty slim. But I’m going to give them a run for their money.”

During his campaign, he refused to wear a suit or cut his hair, preferring to allow potential voters to see the real Joe. In Colorado, he received close to 1,000 votes, many of which came from the write-in option.

A Gubernatorial Run Came In 2018

joshua-dial tiger king
Netflix
Netflix

In 2017, Joe Exotic hired Joshua Dial to run his campaign for Governor of Oklahoma. Dial had previously worked on Exotic’s presidential campaign and is heavily featured in Tiger King as on of the man’s biggest supporters.

Like with his presidential campaign, Exotic’s bid for governor fell short, but the increased media exposure was good for business. The campaign was rewarding but exhausting for its manager, who doesn’t plan to watch Tiger King any time soon. Today, Dial has distanced himself from the world of Joe Exotic and is engaged to be married.

John Finlay Fixed His Teeth

john finlay smile
John Finlay/Facebook
John Finlay/Facebook

Watching John Finlay being interviewed during Tiger King, it’s hard not to focus on his teeth. More correctly, it’s hard not to focus on his lack of teeth. For those curious, Finlay has a perfectly healthy smile today, the documentary just never showed it.

After Tiger King premiered, Finlay released a photo of himself online with healthy teeth. He also revealed that he had his teeth fixed while filming the documentary, but footage of those interviews was not used.

Jeff Lowe Is Happy With The Docuseries

leff lowe tiger king
Netflix
Netflix

When Jeff Lowe agreed to participate in Tiger King, he was worried about how Netflix would portray him. After watching it with his fiancee, Lowe posted on Facebook that overall he was happy with the finished product:

“A little sensationalism here and there, but for the most part it was a decent Readers Digest version… When i agreed to be involved in this docuseries I was slightly concerned that by Son’s Of Anarchy lifestyle might be too much for the average person to handle. I make no apologies for living my life to the fullest extent. But those concerns completely vanished when I saw the segment on Doc Antle, Joe’s Messiah and role model.”

Shaquille O’Neal Used To Donate To The GW Zoo

shaquille oneal
Leon Bennett/WireImage
Leon Bennett/WireImage

After learning that he was briefly involved in Tiger King, NBA icon Shaquille O’Neal came clean about his involvement in the park, “We’re there and I dropped some donations for the tigers’ foods and all that. We take pictures with tigers. We went back a couple times.”

Shaq said once he learned about everything Joe was involved with he stopped going. The big man also admitted to buying two white tigers that almost killed him. He did not specify where he bought the tigers from.

Carole Baskin Reached Out To Kim Kardashian

caroles baskin with her husband
Netflix
Netflix

One aspect of Tiger King we haven’t fully touched on yet is that of Carole Baskin. The owner of Big Cat Rescue is painted by the documentary as not only Joe’s archenemy, but also as a complicated figure herself.

Kim Kardashian took to Twitter after watching Tiger King to ask her followers if they believed Baskin murdered her own husband (a theory brought up in the show). After seeing the tweet, Baskin reached out to Kardashian, “We would love for you to visit Big Cat Rescue once Covid-19 is over to meet Carole, tour our GFAS-accredited sanctuary for big cats, and learn about how you can help.”

Joe Was Given 22 Years Behind Bars

joe-exotic going to prison
Netflix
Netflix

Two months before Tiger King debuted on Netflix, the trial of Joe Exotic ended. The disgraced zoo owner was facing charges of murder for hire and animal endangerment. He was found guilty of both and sentenced to 22 years in prison.

When Joe is released, he was will be 78 years old, although he is fighting to be released early. Exotic has even gone as far as to ask for a presidential pardon. None has been awarded yet.

Exotic Opened The Park After A Family Tragedy

joe exotic with a baby tiger
Netflix
Netflix

In 1997, Joe Exotic’s brother passed away in a tragic car accident. It was after this incident that Exotic decided to open his animal park. He started the business with honest intentions and only took in animals that had been turned in by their owners.

It was in 2000 that Exotic obtained his first tiger and his love affair with the big animals began. Within a few short years, the GW Zoo became home to many more tigers thanks to Joe’s breeding program.

Joe Met Dillon Passage Via Text Message

dillon passage tiger king
Netflix
Netflix

Joe Exotic most recently married Dillon Passage. Passage was a 22-year-old from Texas who Joe said, “just texted me out of the blue. It took me a day and half to talk him into dinner and he never left.”

Wedding vows between the couple were exchanged in 2017, shortly after another of Joe’s husbands passed away. Before vows were exchanged, Exotic said in an interview that Dillon was not jealous of Joe’s remaining love for his recently departed husband and, “I could not ask for a more amazing person to land in my life.”

His Family Doesn’t Remember His Big Accident

joe exotic interview
Netflix
Netflix

You might remember that Joe broke his back while getting into a car accident during his time working for law enforcement. The odd thing is, even though he has provided various publications with pictures of the wreck, no one close to him seems to remember it.

When New York Magazine poked around the story, his family, friends, and townspeople all had the same answer. Joe continues to tell the story today, saying the moment the accident happened he was reborn.

The Park Was Funded By His Brother’s Death

a man with a liger
Netflix
Netflix

Joe Exotic’s brother, Garold, passed away in a car accident that resulted in a financial settlement for the family. Garold’s parents made the quick decision that they didn’t want the money, leaving the decision of what to do with it up to Joe and Garold’s wife.

Garold’s wife wanted to use the money to build a soccer field, but Joe had other plans. He used his charm and quick wits to convince the family that they should build and open the GW Zoo because Garold had always wanted to go to Africa.

Kate McKinnon Is Playing Carole In An Upcoming Show

kate mckinnon actress
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

With the story of Joe Exotic becoming such a quick sensation, Hollywood is hungry for more. Even before Tiger King debuted, a series about Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin was in development. It would be based on Joe’s self-titled podcast.

McKinnon prides herself as being a bit of a cat lady, and even owns clothes with pockets specially designed to carry her housecats around with her. She does not own any big cats.

Joe Is Suing Everyone For $94 Million

joe exotic lawsuit
Netflix
Netflix

Shortly after Tiger King became one of the highest-rated series for Netflix, details of Joe Exotic’s $94 million lawsuit against US Fish and Wildlife, James Garretson, and Jeff Lowe were revealed. Winning the lawsuit is considered a longshot.

Exotic claims in the suit that the zoo was used “as a front for credit card fraud, ID theft, mail fraud, illegal [substances]… and selling tiger parts.” His lawyers also included 14 other charges that attempt to prove he was set up.