Who is Joe Exotic? The life of “Tiger King” Joseph Maldonado-Passage

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“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness”

Netflix


Netflix describes its new docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness” as a “true murder-for-hire story from the underworld of big cat breeding.”

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Joe Maldonado-Passage.

Netflix


The show seems to be everyone’s new favorite true-crime saga — it has been Netflix’s most popular title for two weeks straight.

The subject of the docuseries is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a man better known as Joe Exotic. He’s a former zoo operator who has tried his hand at politics and is currently serving 22 years in prison for killing tigers and concocting a plot to murder his rival.

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Joe Maldonado-Passage.

Netflix


Maldonado-Passage was born in Kansas in 1963 as Joseph Schreibvogel. He has described himself as a “gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet,” both in the docuseries and in a 2019 Daily Beast profile.

The story of Maldonado-Passage’s roadside zoo begins in the 1990s after his brother died in a car accident. His family wanted to build a soccer field in his honor, but Maldonado-Passage wanted to build a refuge for unwanted exotic animals in his honor, instead.

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Joe Maldonado-Passage at GW Zoo in 2013.

Sue Ogrocki/AP Images


In October 1997, Maldonado-Passage’s brother Garold died in a car accident. They were close and had previously owned a pet store together. His wife and children wanted to build a soccer field in his honor, but Maldonado-Passage convinced them of another plan.

Shortly after, Maldonado-Passage purchased an old horse ranch in Wynnewood, Oklahoma.

He named the operation The Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park — better known as the GW Zoo.

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A portrait of Maldonado-Passage’s brother Garold is tattooed on his right arm.

Sue Ogrocki/AP Images


It started as a sanctuary for unwanted exotic animals, and it grew quickly.

By 2001, Maldonado-Passage had 89 big cats and a thousand other exotic animals in GW Zoo. But big cats are expensive to feed — Mike Tyson once spent thousands a month to feed his own pet tigers —and after a while, Maldonado-Passage ran out of cash.

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Joe Maldonado-Passage at his zoo in Oklahoma.

Netflix


For context, famed heavyweight champion Mike Tyson once owned three tigers, and spent $4,000 a month on meat for mealtime, according to The Sun.

In the docuseries, Maldonado-Passage said he had as many as 176 tigers at one point.

In 2001, Maldonado-Passage started letting customers play with tiger cubs, charging $25 to hold a cub for a few minutes, and another $25 for a photo of the interaction. Around the same time, his first husband, Brian Rhyne, died of HIV complications.

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A tiger cub being pet.

Benny Marty/Shutterstock


Many were happy to pay the price to share an experience with cubs, and the new cub-petting strategy increased revenue for Maldonado-Passage.

That same year, Maldonado-Passage’s first husband, Brian Rhyne, died of HIV complications. They met in the 1980s at a gay cowboy bar in Texas.

After his Rhyne’s death, Maldonado-Passage adopted the Joe Exotic moniker and started traveling with cubs and performing magic shows. A New York Magazine profile reporter that this venture once brought in $23,697.

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Joe Maldonado-Passage.

Netflix


Maldonado-Passage’s 2002 mobile zoo efforts provided him with an entirely new business model that depended on a constant supply of cubs.

Maldonado-Passage started to rely on customer interaction with cubs for a paycheck, which created a constant need for cubs. He started breeding to meet demand.

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A young girl holding a tiger cub.

Aleksandr Mostovoi/Shutterstock


According to the USDA, tiger cubs are only safe to handle between four weeks and 12 weeks old. After that, they are considered to be dangerous.

To continue capitalizing on the customer’s desire to interact with the animals, Joe Exotic needed a steady stream of tiger cubs — and so he started breeding them to keep his business model afloat.

Amid building his cub-petting and cub-breeding business in 2002, Maldonado-Passage’s personal life also went through a few changes, including a short-lived second marriage to JC Hartpence, and the start of a relationship with John Finlay.

John Finlay

John Finlay.

Netflix


Maldonado-Passage married a man named JC Hartpence a year after the death of his first husband. At the time, Maldonado-Passage was 39-years-old and Hartpence was 24-years-old.

Their relationship was volatile and they split up a year later — Hartpence, who was not included in the Netflix docuseries, is serving life in prison for a murder unrelated to Maldonado-Passage.

Maldonado-Passage then met John Finlay, a fan-favorite from the docuseries, in 2003. Finlay was 19-years-old and just out of high school.

In 2011, Baskin filed a lawsuit against Maldonado-Passage for trademark infringement. She asserted that Maldonado-Passage altered the name of his operation to “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment,” similar to her rescue’s name, to spite her. A judge awarded Baskin $1 million in 2013.

Carole Baskin

Carole Baskin.

Netflix


In the lawsuit, Baskin alleged that Maldonado-Passage had purposefully changed his zoo’s name to resemble her rescue. Beyond changing the name of his zoo, he even registered a phone number in Florida, where Baskin’s operation was located.

The feud created public interest, which Maldonado-Passage then used to start putting out his own reality television show online in the early 2010s. Joe Exotic TV frequently included Maldonado-Passage slamming Baskin and singing country songs.

In an amalgamation of the two, Maldonado-Passage released a music video in 2015 called “Here Kitty Kitty,” which stokes rumors of Baskin murdering her second husband.

According to New York Magazine, it was later revealed that all of Maldonado-Passage’s songs, of which there were many, were written and performed by two musicians in Washington. Maldonado-Passage was lip-syncing.

Separately, he married John Finlay and a new employee, 19-year-old Travis Maldonado, in a joint ceremony in 2014. Maldonado was Maldonado-Passage’s fourth husband.

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Travis Maldonado, Joe Maldonado-Passage, and John FInlay at their wedding ceremony,

Netflix


Both Finlay and Maldonado identified as heterosexual, according to multiple zoo employees interviewed in the docuseries.

Finlay left the union a year later, for a woman with whom he had a baby.

While Lowe tried to ramp up business for the zoo, Maldonado-Passage decided to run for public office. He ran for president in 2016 as a Libertarian and landed 962 total votes.

In 2015, he launched a campaign for the presidency as a Libertarian. According to New York Magazine, his own campaign manager, Josh Dial, characterized him as “Donald Trump on meth.”

The docuseries made it clear that Maldonado-Passage ran on Dial’s platform. The pair met in a Walmart. 

Losing his fourth husband and marrying his fifth did not slow Maldonado-Passage down. He continued his campaign for Oklahoma governor, but with minimal results.

Dial served as his campaign manager again.

He received 644 votes in the primary, putting him in last place behind the two other Libertarian candidates. 

At the same time, Maldonado-Passage attempted to hire a zoo employee to kill Baskin. The employee, Allen Glover, took the money but did not carry out the murder.

Allan Glover

Allen Glover.

Netflix


Glover was a former employee of Lowe’s. He worked as a handyman at the zoo. He was gruff and sported a teardrop tattoo.

Maldonado-Passage subsequently offered Glover money to drive down to Florida and kill Baskin. Glover accepted payment but did not carry out the crime.

After that debacle, Lowe and others like zoo insider James Garretson acted as FBI informants to help with Maldonado-Passage’s arrest. Maldonado-Passage was apprehended for the murder-for-hire plot in September 2018.

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Joe Maldonado-Passage.

Santa Rosa County Jail/Associated Press


Lowe and other insiders cooperated with the FBI in a sting operation.

Maldonado-Passage ultimately tried to hire an FBI agent to kill Baskin. He was arrested for the murder-for-hire plot on September 7, 2018.

Maldonado-Passage’s trial began in March 2019, and he was found guilty shortly thereafter in April. He was ultimately sentenced to 22 years in prison.

joe exotic

Joe Maldonado-Passage.

Netflix


Maldonado-Passage was convicted on two counts of murder for hire and 17 counts of animal abuse, including killing and selling tigers. The jury deliberated for three hours.

He was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison.

Disclosure: Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Business Insider’s parent company, Axel Springer, is a Netflix board member.

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