'Tiger King': Why This Doc About a Gay Polygamist Exotic Cat Breeder Is Your Next True-Crime Obsession
By Stacy Lambe
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is a Netflix docuseries about multiple rivalries within the extremely lucrative and illegal business of exotic animal breeding. In the words of Saturday Night Live’s Stefon, this unbelievably true tale “has everything”: a gay polygamist roadside zoo owner; a wild animal rescuer accused of feeding her missing husband to a tiger; a local zoo owner who has a cult-like hold over his female employees; a strip club owner; a Las Vegas con man and his cohort of convicted criminals; a failed murder-for-hire plot; arson; ensuing legal battles; a failed 2016 presidential bid; and a federal investigation that brings it all together.
At the center of it all is Joe Exotic, the self-proclaimed “Tiger King” who has made headlines over the past year thanks to a New York Magazine investigative feature and the Wondery podcast Over My Dead Body Season 2: Joe Exotic, which explored his fierce love for big cats, his escalating antics and intense battle with Carole Baskin, an animal activist and owner of a big cat sanctuary who is attempting to put him out of business.
Now their story has been captured on camera thanks to directors Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, who has a history of depicting obscure American subcultures and became interested in the secretive world of exotic animal breeding. When he and Chaiklin started meeting some of the big cat people -- whom they describe as a menagerie of incredibly charismatic, colorful characters -- they knew they had an incredible story to tell.
From 2014 to weeks into 2020, their cameras followed Exotic and Baskin, who were already legally embroiled with each other, and watched in real time as it escalated into something much, much darker. The end result is a seven-part series that takes many unexpected turns as these people reveal their true intentions. In order to understand everything that’s unfolding in this must-watch documentary, ET has put together a guide to the major personalities and their interwoven stories.
Joseph Maldonado-Passage aka Joe Exotic aka Tiger King
Born Joe Schreibvogel, our central character has changed his name many times, borrowing last names from his various husbands and embracing a moniker used when he opened his zoo and started producing his independent reality series. Here, he’ll simply be known as Joe Exotic.
As the documentary explains, Exotic has had a lifelong love of animals but took particular interest in more exotic creatures, like tigers and other big cats, after recovering from a major car accident. Soon after, he fell into the world of animal breeding, growing his collection of animals -- which at one point included 200 tigers -- before establishing a popular roadside zoo in Oklahoma. Newborns and young tigers became an easy way to finance his business, with people paying just to cuddle up to a cub in a photo or pet a young big cat.
Exotic’s big heart also extended to the men in his life. He has had multiple husbands, including John Finlay and Travis Maldonado, who are both featured in the documentary. At one point, all three were married -- they wedded in a simultaneous marriage.
But as his business and marriages grew, so did his personality, which eventually led to his downfall. His antics inside and out of the park -- notably his country music recording career, a reality show and 2016 presidential bid -- often clashed with husbands, investors, employees (including one who bears a striking resemblance to Aaron Eckhart in Erin Brockovich) and Baskin. While it’s easy to Google where Exotic has ended up after the government intervened, it’s worth waiting to watch his journey unfold onscreen.
Baskin is the founder of Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary near Tampa, Florida, that houses and rehabilitates exotic cats. She’s a fierce advocate for the protection of these animals and a sworn enemy of the likes of Exotic and other big cat owners Doc Antle and Mario Tabraue. In order to put a stop to their roadside zoos and breeding practices, she’s been trying to garner congressional support for The Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would “ban all future keeping of all large cat species in the U.S.”
While Baskin means well with her sanctuary, that hasn’t stopped her and her current husband, Howard, from getting into it with Exotic, whom they have sued over trademark issues related to their opposing big cat businesses and used a settlement to drain Exotic of his financial stability.
Baskin has her own storied past, having been accused by Exotic and others of feeding her missing ex-husband, Don Lewis, to one of her tigers. The multimillionaire was married to Baskin prior to her current marriage to Howard, and he vanished in 1997. His disappearance came after Lewis filed a restraining order against Baskin, claiming she had threatened his life and had multiple wills put in place to protect his estate. Despite the circumstances before he vanished, Baskin has never been formally accused by the police of any wrongdoing.
In addition to being the subject of rumors spread by Exotic, Baskin has also become a target of his malicious verbal attacks and the target of an alleged murder plot to bring their rivarly to an end once and for all.
Antle, whom Chaiklin describes as a tiger whisperer in South Carolina, is the founder and director of The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species, a South Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, wildlife preservation. He built his reputation and his business by providing animals to several hit ‘90s films and also lets visitors get up close with tigers and other big cats -- for a price.
What sets his zoo experience apart from Exotic’s is a level of sophistication, an upscale presentation and his attractive female animal caretakers. In the documentary, a former employee claims that despite the business’ outward appearance, conditions on his property and the expectations he has of his staff are grueling. He almost has a cult-like presence over his female employees, who largely appear dedicated to him.
While loose allies in defending themselves against Baskin, Antle and Exotic differ on how to deal with the attack on their businesses.
As Exotic’s financial situation becomes more dire and his feud with Baskin continues to escalate, he enlists the help of Lowe, who becomes an investor of the zoo.
Lowe is a showy man from Las Vegas with seemingly lots of money and desire to transform Exotic’s rundown zoo into a popular attraction. But as soon as he takes over, things at the park quickly change, from the tone and presentation of the zoo itself to the staff, who get swapped out for Lowe’s own people.
Soon after taking over the finances, Lowe discovers Exotic has embezzled money and misappropriated funds from his 2016 presidential bid, putting the two men at odds and leading to even more crazy antics from Exotic. As Lowe’s distrust for Exotic grows, he looks for a way to protect himself from going down with his business partner and feeds into his paranoia surrounding Baskin’s attempts to close their park.
While the four are easily the key players in the unfolding, overlapping stories in the Tiger King documentary, they are hardly the only ones involved or featured on camera. However, the personalities Chaiklin and Goode ended up focusing on “were all interconnected with each other to some degree, so there was a narrative drive between them,” the pair says. “These guys really stood out because not only were they engaged in this feud, but they were some of the biggest players in this world of tiger breeding, roadside zoos, tiger selfie booths… If you tried to script this story, critics would say it is completely unbelievable. But truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.”