Tiger King is Netflix’s latest true crime documentary focusing on the bizarre and chaotic life of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, the former tiger breeder and owner of a private roadside zoo in Oklahoma. Let me be clear, the entirety of Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness is fucked up. All of it.
Exotic is now serving 22 years in a cage at Grady County Jail in Oklahoma, guilty of trying to hire someone to kill longtime rival and Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin. He is also guilty of eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office Western District of Oklahoma.
I knew after watching the trailer that the series was going to be a lot, and I was 3000% correct. Off the top of my head, there’s the unhinged dead rabbit protest, all the death threats, the Big Cat Rescue copyright debacle, the embezzling, the midnight transfer of cats, the Feds, the music videos, whatever the fuck happened in Vegas, the polyamorous relationships, Jeff Lowe, Doc Antle being gross, Exotic’s campaign runs, and so on and so forth. But for me personally, there are five moments that haven’t left my brain because said moments were either genuinely unbelievable or just downright heartbreaking.
Let us begin.
The Carole Baskin Mannequin | Episode 1: Not Your Average Joe
Sure, you could say the entirety of episode one is deeply disturbing as we’re introduced to the world of Joe Exotic and his intense critic Carole Baskin, but what did it for me – apart from seeing animal after animal in a completely unnatural environment – was seeing Exotic and his pals shoot a mannequin named after Baskin. And not just once or twice, but multiple times with different types of guns, eventually blowing it up. This, after Exotic went live on his internet show and told all animal rights activists that they would “stop breathing” before they shut him down. This, after Exotic said he was going to send Baskin snakes for her birthday, and she actually received a mailbox full of live snakes. I just – what the fuck. And I’m not even going to get into the blowup doll we learn about in episode four. I’m mentioning the death threats first because it’s the entire premise of the series and yet, it’s not even the most fucked up bit of the documentary. Not even close.
If you’re reading this without watching the series, please turn back now. This is as tame as things get.
A GW Employee Had His Arm Ripped Off By A Tiger | Episode 2: Cult of Personality
So we met Kelci “Saff” Saffery in episode one of the series, but it wasn’t until the opening seconds of the second episode did we learn how he lost his left hand working at The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. As Exotic told customers at the park that day “an employee stuck their arm through the cage and a tiger tore his arm off”. He offered refunds and told everyone to come back another day. Saff was taken to hospital and at the time, his hand was still functioning. The surgeon estimated it would take two years of reconstructive surgery to mend his hand, or he could amputate it. Saff opted for the latter. Five days after the amputation, Saff went back to work and everything was fine (?).
This happened in the opening seconds of episode two. Episode two. You’ll forget about it by episode three. Speaking of which.
Did Carole Baskin Murder Her First Husband And Feed His Remains To Tigers? | Episode 3: The Secret
Episode three begins with big creep Bhagavan “Doc” Antle of Myrtle Beach Safari telling us, “What a story”. As we soon find out, he’s referring to the disappearance of Baskin’s second husband Don Lewis in 1997. Baskin is rumoured to have murdered him and fed his remains to her cats, apparently over differences about how to run the sanctuary. Lewis was declared dead in 2002, however no body was recovered and the case remains unsolved. But there are a lot of theories online and whatnot about what happened to Lewis, including the theory that he orchestrated his own disappearance and moved to Costa Rica where he had a number of properties. The most gruesome of theories is that Baskin killed him, passed his remains through a meat grinder, and fed it to the tigers.
“It’s a perfect scenario to dispose of someone,” Donna Pettis, Lewis’ eldest daughter from a previous marriage told People in 1998, a year after his disappearance. “We were upset that the cops didn’t test the DNA on the meat grinder.”
Baskin has always denied she had any part in her former husband’s disappearance. After the doco premiered, she posted a statement to her website refuting the claims that she murdered her husband. She shared her disappointment that Netflix had not delivered “the big cat version of Blackfish (the documentary that exposed abuse at SeaWorld)” – which they had pitched to her five years ago – but instead created a doco “as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers.”
It’s a lengthy statement, which you can find here (she even mentions the meat grinder theory). But if you want Baskin’s bottom line, here it is.
“Don was not easy to live with and like most couples we had our moments. But I never threatened him and I certainly had nothing to do with his disappearance. When he disappeared, I did everything I could to assist the police. I encouraged them to check out the rumours from Costa Rica, and separately I hired a private investigator. Robert Moor’s Wondery Podcast “Joe Exotic” included discussion of Don’s disappearance but was much more honest and fair in their treatment of it. They ended the discussion by pointing out that the investigator told them that, in their dealings with me, ‘she was courteous and there was nothing that jumped out at me in terms of her demeanour that to make me think that she was not giving us accurate information or hiding anything.'”
The Studio Fire | Episode Four: Playing With Fire
As a bit of a breather, let’s look at Kirkham’s role in this series. He’s an interesting one because he had all this worldly experience in television, but he chose to document life at The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. So Kirkham had a reality TV show crew shooting everything.
“Joe Exotic was everything I had dreamed of in finding a reality TV show,” he says in the documentary.
“I could give a crap about his internet show, but that was the deal. He signed the contact. ‘I’ll let you shoot a reality show if you’ll go ahead and run my studio.'” And that’s what happened. The contract meant that Kirkham owned all the footage for the reality TV series and Exotic’s online series. Exotic didn’t realise this ’til later.
Now here’s the thing, Kirkham said he had “everything on videotape, good, bad, and ugly.” He said he had been in negotiations with a network to sell the show, which would have netted Exotic a lot of money. And then the studio, which had all the unedited footage of life at GW in it, was set on fire. There is literally not one dull moment in this goddamn series and I hate it.
Along with the footage, the fire also destroyed the alligator den next to the studio, killing seven alligators. Sheriff Rhodes, who dealt with the majority of Exotic’s troubles over the years, said it was absolutely arson. No denying it. Now, according to Exotic, Baskin paid Kirkham $20,000 to move all of the footage and set fire to Exotic’s studio. Baskin denies this. On CCTV, Exotic swears a shadowy figure walking to the studio on the morning it burnt down is Kirkham. Kirkham denies this, “That’s my retirement that just burned, okay?” AND THEN, Exotic became a suspect for two main reasons. A) He realised he didn’t own a single bit of the potentially incriminating footage and b) some of the items lost in the fire were going to be under subpoena, so that could have been a motivation to destroy evidence. But would Joe Exotic really murder seven alligators just like that?
The arson case still remains open. I HATE THAT THIS IS STILL UNSOLVED. And Kirkham? He just upped and left empty-handed.
JUSTICE FOR THE ALLIGATORS.
The Death Of Joe Exotic’s Husband Travis Maldonado | Episode 5: Make America Exotic Again
Travis Maldonado – Exotic’s second husband – died after he shot himself in the head, trying to prove to Joshua Dial – Exotic’s campaign manager – that his gun would not fire without the ammunition clip. So Maldonado held the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. The gun fired.
“I was sitting in the chair you know, looking at him when he put the gun to his head,” Dial says. “It’s not like in the movies. I knew he was dead the second that he pulled the trigger but at the same time I didn’t, you know? I thought it was a joke. Because you know, Travis was a jokester. He was a prankster, he liked to play pranks on people.”
Dial’s reaction to Maldonado’ death was captured on CCTV, which was shown in the documentary. It is easily one of the most distressing scenes in the series.
Travis Maldonado deserved better.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness is streaming on Netflix now.Image: Tiger King