Okay, there is so much to unpack here, but let’s start with this: I would not trust Joe Exotic to take cheery photos of my toddler next to a tiger cub. And yet, somehow, this is what the titular character of Netflix’s newest bingeable true-crime documentary series has done! For decades!! As a career!!!
Joe, the owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in rural Oklahoma, looks exactly like the type of dude you’d take specific pains to steer your children away from. He has fake bullet holes tattooed across his chest. He carries a gun on his hip at all times, which he describes as specifically for “people.” (Excuse me?!) I will give him credit for his truly awe-inspiring bleached-blonde mullet. But friends, this man has reportedly pierced not only his eyebrow and ears but also, um, his penis. Please do not ask me how. I am concerned, more immediately, with this: How did anyone trust this man with not one but 187 big cats?
I’m getting ahead of myself. But there are so many red flags! Yet by some insane twist of our broken reality, Joe’s extraordinary tale is true. Netflix lays it all out, including:
- Joe’s loveless childhood
- The tragic death of his brother, who dreamed of starting a wildlife sanctuary
- Joe’s purchase of a big cat
- His purchase of more big cats
- His breeding and selling of big cats
- His admiration for a convicted drug dealer
- His friendship with a cult leader who makes women call him “Bhagavan,” usually an epithet for a deity
- His reality TV show
- His murder-for-hire plot to kill an animal-rights activist….Oh, I’m sorry, did I lose you there?
Polygamy, drugs, murder, TIGERS! This Netflix doc has got it all. That is, if you can keep the story straight. To help, we answered your most burning questions…and asked a few of our own.
WHO IS THE TIGER KING?
Joe Schreibvogel, born in rural Kansas, is the Tiger King. An exotic animal breeder who started his own zoo (or sanctuary, depending on whom you ask) for profit, Joe started calling himself the Tiger King while filming and broadcasting his own reality web series.
WHO IS JOE EXOTIC?
Joe Exotic is the Tiger King. The Tiger King is Joe Exotic. Although Joe has several alter egos, Exotic is perhaps the name he’s best known for.
WHAT IS TIGER KING ABOUT?
Many, many things. But mostly: Joe Exotic’s rapid descent from local celebrity to convicted criminal. As Joe attempts to keep his zoo afloat through breeding, tours, photo ops, and, arguably, animal abuse, he draws the attention of animal rights activists—in particular, one Carole Baskin. Netflix chronicles his growing hatred for Baskin as it eclipses all other motivations in his life, leading him to hire a hitman to take her out.
The show also explores the overall phenomenon surrounding exotic animal breeding in America, where some estimates project there are more big cats in captivity than in the wild worldwide. At its heart, Tiger King is about warring ideologies: Should animals be kept in cages? What gives us the right to interact with them? Is it better to breed cubs for profit, conservation, and connection? Or is it best to rescue grown cats and ensure the captivity cycle does not continue?
Peep the trailer below for more.
SO, HOLD ON…ANYONE CAN OWN BIG CATS?
Pretty much. There’s very little government regulation involved. The Endangered Species Act prohibits possession, import, and export of endangered cats, but the rule does not apply to captive-bred wildlife.
WHAT DOES JOE EXOTIC BREED?
Mainly tigers and lions, although he cares for a number of other animals. As New York first reported, he is also convinced that by repeatedly breeding a lion with a tiger, then a liger with a lion until he creates a tililiger, he can eventually recreate a prehistoric sabertooth tiger. Dear reader, he cannot.
WHO IS JOE’S NEMESIS, CAROLE BASKIN?
A cofounder of Big Cat Rescue, a 40-acre home for rescued exotic cats, Baskin is an animal-rights activist with a massive social media following. Her husband refers to her as “the Mother Teresa of cats.” What sets Big Cat Rescue apart from exotic zoos is its policy: no breeding. The land is simply a safe place for grown cats to live until they die.
Convinced that breeding is animal abuse, Baskin publicly criticizes Joe, thereby unleashing his (rather shocking) anger. Of course, Baskin’s story isn’t so simple either. She’s haunted by the specter of her missing first husband, whom some (including Joe) believe she killed and fed to her tigers.
IS THE TIGER KING’S NAME “EXOTIC JOE” OR “JOE EXOTIC”?
The latter. Several years back, Shaquille O’Neal visited Joe’s park and then, delightfully, said his name backward during an ESPN broadcast: “Yesterday, I went to the G. W. Zoo, shout-out to Exotic Joe.” We’re sure Shaq apologizes for the error.
IS JOE EXOTIC MARRIED?
*Sigh* It depends on what you mean by “married.” Legally, uhhh…I mean, he married his first husband in the 1980s, when gay marriage was definitely not legal yet. He has a marriage certificate from a three-way wedding with his partners John Finlay and Travis Maldonado. He also married a man named Dillon Passage. So I guess the answer is maybe?
WHY DOES JOE EXOTIC SELL SKIN CREAM AND BARBECUE SAUCE IN HIS ZOO GIFT SHOP?
I would imagine it is because he enjoys skin cream and barbecue sauce. There are also Tiger King–branded condoms, if you’re interested. Oh, and T-shirts that declare “I GOT PEED ON BY A TIGER.” (His animals often urinate on their cages and spray passersby.) A treasure trove, really.
IS THE SKIN CREAM ANY GOOD?
As soon as I have clearance from a Cosmo editor to fly to Oklahoma and find out, I will let you know.
IS JOE EXOTIC A COUNTRY MUSIC SINGER?
I dunno, is Alexis Rose a pop star? Joe Exotic has released 28 songs and 16 music videos—you can find some on his YouTube channel—although he apparently lip-syncs everything.
IS JOE EXOTIC A MAGICIAN?
Technically, yes? While touring the country with his posse of exotic animals, he started incorporating magic into his shows at fairs and shopping malls. He called it the Mystical Magic of the Endangered show.
IS JOE EXOTIC A POLICE OFFICER?
Somehow, impossibly, he was once the police chief of Eastvale, Texas. I know. It makes my head hurt too.
IS JOE EXOTIC A MAYOR?
No, but he was inspired by Donald Trump—of course—to launch his own presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. He was not elected.
IS OR WAS JOE EXOTIC A RESTAURANT OWNER?
He opened a bar and a pizza restaurant down the road from his zoo, according to Texas Monthly, so, we’re sad to say, yes.
IS JOE EXOTIC IN A CULT?
Amazingly, no. But his so-called mentor, Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, founder and director of The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.), is probably the leader of one. Trust me. Get a few episodes in and you’ll understand.
IS JOE EXOTIC…OKAY?
I won’t spoil too much, but given that this is a true-crime doc, you can probably assume no, not really. Local police consider him dangerous. He threatens “a small Waco” if anyone comes in and tries to take his animals away. He does not wear underwear. He is unhinged, to say the least.
WHERE IS JOE EXOTIC NOW?
In the Grady County Jail in Oklahoma. Here’s hoping there’s something that can be learned from all this chaos: Innocent creatures don’t deserve to be caged.
IS ALL OF THIS TRUE?