Netflix's must-see documentary series Tiger King has gripped the world. The mega-hit tells the extraordinary story of Joe Exotic, an outlandish and eccentric zookeeper jailed for hiring a hitman to kill his bitter rival Carole Baskin.
Joe Exotic AKA Joseph Maldonado-Passage was mad about animals so it was no surprise when he eventually became a zookeeper and earned the name Joe Exotic.
He was the heart and soul of a 16-acre private zoo in Oklahoma, USA. After years of living and working at the park, Joe Exotic became something of a local celebrity, launching a YouTube channel and even appearing on a Louis Theroux documentary. But, was Joe Exotic really the man his fans thought he was?
He called himself the Tiger King and posed for pictures with his animals. Bright-blond mullet, horseshoe moustache and eclectic wardrobe, you could spot him a mile off.
In the animal world, Joe Exotic was a star. But not everyone approved of how he ran his business. In Tampa, Florida, animal rights campaigner and conservationist Carole Baskin had her eye on him.
The owner of a big-cat sanctuary, Carole was highly critical of Joe’s work. She disagreed with the way Joe allowed visitors to pet cubs when they visited the zoo. And Carole criticised Joe’s zoo for breeding animals for profit.
In 2004, Joe attracted more criticism after a lion cub was born deformed. Activists believed it was a result of inbreeding.
In 2013, Carole won a $1 million (nearly £800,000) civil suit against Joe for trademark infringement. Incensed, Joe vowed to bring Carole down. But by 2018, Joe’s animal kingdom was turning to dust.
The zoo had been bought out by exotic-animal breeder Jeff Lowe, who had started dismantling it, piece by piece. He was planning to move the animals to a different park. Joe was furious.
With his husband and four dogs, he moved to Florida. He put his animal work behind him and found a job washing dishes. On the morning of 7 September 2018, just 81 days after Joe left the zoo, he went to a local hospital to apply for another job.
But as he arrived in the hospital car park, he was surrounded by police. The officers ordered Joe to get down on the ground. He was then handcuffed and taken to a federal courthouse. There, Joe learnt what he was accused of: hiring hitmen to kill Carole Baskin.
Luckily, Carole was still alive. But police said they had tons of evidence that suggested Joe had tried to have her killed – twice!
In March 2019, Joe Exotic stepped into the courtroom in Oklahoma City for the first day of his trial. He wore a suit. If it wasn’t for his bright-blond mullet, Joe Exotic would have been unrecognisable from the man on his YouTube page.
Joe was charged with two counts of hiring a person to commit murder. He was also accused of nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act. The court listened as maintenance man Allen Glover testified.
He told the court Joe had given him $3,000 (nearly £2,500) to travel from Oklahoma to Florida to murder Carole. But he insisted he had no intention of carrying out the deed. He planned to run away with the money. The court heard how Joe then met up with someone he thought was a hit man. Little did he know it was an undercover FBI agent who turned up to meet him.
A plot to kill?
On 8 December 2017, the FBI agent met Joe Exotic to discuss details of the planned murder. A recording was played to the court.
‘Just like follow her into a mall parking lot and just cap her and drive off,’ Joe was recorded saying.
He agreed to pay the man $10,000 (nearly £8,000) to have Carole killed. And that wasn’t all. At the same hearing, Joe, the self-professed Tiger King, was accused of killing five elderly tigers.
Prosecutors showed photos of tiger carcasses that federal agents dug up in the back of the zoo. One former employee told the court how, in October 2017, Joe was expecting a shipment of animals to look after for a circus manager.
According to the employee, Joe needed to make cage space for the new animals. So Joe chose five ageing tigers – Cuddles, Samson, Lauren, Delilah and Trinity – and shot them one by one. He was also accused of trying to disguise the sale of animals – including lions, tigers and a baby lemur – falsifying papers to say they’d been donated.
Joe denied the charges, saying he was being framed. His attorneys said he was joking when he spoke with the undercover FBI agent about killing Carole.
Taking the stand, Joe Exotic said it was ‘no secret’ that he had had disagreements with Carole Baskin.
‘My problem with her is that she is a hypocrite,’ he told the court.
But he said that’s as far as it went and that he never wanted her dead. Carole dismissed claims she was a hypocrite and said Joe had an ‘obsession with seeing me dead’.
She’d run her company since 1992 and had garnered international attention to the plight of captive big cats. Now it was up to the jury to decide…
Was Joe Exotic really an animal killer, intent on seeking deadly revenge on his rival? Or a sad, has-been celebrity, just trying to rebuild his life?
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, 56, was found guilty of trying to get his rival Carole Baskin murdered twice.
He was convicted of two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records, and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.
In January this year, he was sentenced to 22 years in jail.
In a statement, Carole said:
‘I feel a sense of peace and closure because justice has been served.’
Maldonado-Passage said: ‘I still maintain my innocence and [am] looking forward, in the upcoming days, to my attorneys filing my appeal and moving on to the next step in this nightmare.
The series is now available to watch on Netflix