“Before this is over with, I’m gonna shut down everybody.”
So says zookeeper Joe Exotic in episode one of Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, the seven-part documentary series that begins streaming today on Netflix.
Joe Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Schreibvogel Maldonado-Passage, is the owner-operator of a rural Oklahoma zoo, where he keeps 227 tigers, many if not all of them born and bred in captivity.
He is three years into a 22-year stretch in prison for his role in a murder-for-hire plot. The intended victim, Carole Baskin, runs Big Cat Rescue – a home for abused, neglected, old or no longer desired big cats – in Tampa.
“I live, eat and breathe ending the captivity of wild cats,” Baskin says in Tiger King. “And I know that I’m going to see this through to the end.”
Baskin is a vocal critic of places like Joe Exotic’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, where visitors pay a fee to rub faces with six-week-old cubs, and the adults are paraded out to put on “shows” with Joe Exotic and his staff of tattooed misfits.
The outcome is given away early in the first episode, Not Your Average Joe, as he’s calling the documentary’s producer from a prison pay phone.
The country music-singing, mullet-sporting Maldonado-Passage was also convicted of violating federal laws against wildlife trafficking and abuse.
The inaugural episode chronicles the eccentric zookeeper’s efforts to exploit big cats by touring the country, in a semi-truck with as many as 14 people in the cab (with the animals caged in back), and doing “shows” in shopping malls.
Baskin began an email campaign, telling media in each community that the Joe Exotic’s treatment of animals was inhumane, and imploring the malls to cancel his appearances.
The mall tours, one of Joe Exotic’s employees says in the documentary, “would pay the bills for the winter sometimes. So it was definitely a big loss for us. But Joe always found a way to make money.”
He proudly walks the filmmakers through his gift shop, and shows off his best-seller: Joe Exotic brand underwear, with cat-stripe and spot designs.
On social media and through his self-produced, online television show, Joe Exotic – who liked to have himself videotaped firing guns – began to exhibit an unhealthy obsession with Carole Baskin. He made public threats against her life.
Baskin describes opening her mailbox one morning, when it “exploded with snakes” (Joe Exotic had promised, on his show, to send her a venomous snake as a “birthday gift”).
Despite the hate thrown her way by Joe Exotic (and the less-intense owners of other, similar compounds), Baskin continues to lobby for new laws restricting private ownership of tigers, lions, leopards and other wild cats. “We have,” she says at one point, “a tiger crisis in this country.”
Everything in Not Your Average Joe is leading up to an explosive showdown.
An interviewer from CBS Sunday Morning tells Joe Exotic: “The president of the Humane Society called this place, and I quote, a ticking time bomb.”
He responds: “It is a ticking time bomb. If somebody thinks they’re going to walk in here and take my animals away, it’s going to be a small Waco.”