Meet Joe Exotic: the crazy true story behind Netflix’s documentary Tiger King

Tom Fordy
who joe exotic tiger king netflix documentary real life true story
who joe exotic tiger king netflix documentary real life true story

The latest true crime series from Netflix – Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness – is wild.

There’s a zoo with 187 big cats owned by a redneck owner sporting a bleached mullet and shimmering leopard-print shirt; an animal rights activist accused of feeding her millionaire husband to tigers; a safari shaman with a harem of alarmingly young girlfriends; the real-life Tony Montana; courts, politics and embezzlement; arms chewed off; and giant hybrid cats so inbred that they’ve gone cross-eyed.

Directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, the seven-part series looks at the extraordinary underworld of big cat breeders and owners in the United States. And specifically, the feuds and fallouts between them.

At the centre of it all is the self-professed Tiger King himself, Joe Exotic: big-cat zoo owner, showman and singer, political candidate, husband to two much younger straight men and wannabe cult celebrity. “He’s a completely insane, gay, gun-toting, drug-addict fanatic,” his fellow zoo owner Doc Antle says on screen.

Joe Exotic is now serving 22 years for trafficking animals, killing tigers, and plotting to murder his sworn enemy, the big-cat rights activist Carole Baskin.

“Do you know why animals die in cages?” says Joe Exotic from prison, the irony of which is either lost on him, or must hurt like a bite to the jugular. “Their soul dies.”

The documentary project began when Eric Goode, a filmmaker and conservationist, was investigating a notorious reptile dealer in south Florida. In a surreal moment caught on camera, a customer revealed a caged snow leopard, which he’d just purchased and crammed in the back of his van. This led Goode to begin investigating big-cat owners and dealers – which in turn led him to Joe Exotic.

Born Joe Screibvogel in 1963, there was no shortage of trauma in Joe’s early life: when his father found out Joe was gay, he made Joe shake his hand and promise not to attend his funeral. Wracked with turmoil, Joe drove his car off a bridge and broke his back, requiring five years in braces. During his therapy, he lived next door to a safari-park owner and helped to look after cubs and baby monkeys, beginning his love of exotic beasts.

When Joe’s brother was killed by a drunk driver in 1997, Joe opened the GW Exotic Animal Park and began a foundation in his brother’s memory. Joe toured schools to spread the anti-drink and drugs message, though some of the messaging sounds dubious by 2020’s standards. “Drugs make your teeth fall out and you get really ugly and don’t have any friends,” he tells one group of kids in archive camcorder footage.

Joe would take baby cats to the schools – claiming that the kids listened harder with a fluffy animal present – and later embarked on a money-spinning tour of malls with a live petting show, carting cats around in the back of a truck. This caught the attention of Carole Baskin, who campaigned to have Joe’s mall tours shut down and began an increasingly personal feud between the pair.

Baskin is the founder of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, a sanctuary for cats rescued from captivity. Described as “the Mother Teresa of cats” by her husband Howard, she was a key figure in passing the Captive Wild Animal Safety Act, which banned the sale of big cats across state lines. She’s also a leading proponent of the proposed Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would ban cub petting and the ownership of exotic cats outright.

Read more: Why Tiger King proves we want to see the worst in us

Really, Baskin is the hero of the series – an all-round good Samaritan with a bright-eyed demeanour and actual flowers in her hair. But there’s something slightly off-balance about her. She’s like the ultimate cat-lady: her entire life is seemingly cat-themed, and she confesses to a lifelong obsession with all things feline, with an endless supply of leopard-print clobber and furniture.

The series raises questions, too, about Baskin’s integrity. Is her sanctuary – which reportedly makes plenty of money but is manned entirely by unpaid volunteers – really any different from the private zoos she wants to outlaw? Joe Exotic would argue not, and accuses her of various animal abuses.

The documentary also dedicates an episode to the mysterious disappearance of her millionaire husband, Jack Donald Lewis, another big-cat lover and collector, who went missing in 1997.

Baskin’s detractors – of whom, as you’ll discover when you watch, there are many – accuse her of foul play. Persistent rumours – repeated by Joe Exotic, Doc Antle and others – say that Lewis was planning to leave his wife, so she killed him and stuffed his body in a septic tank, or ran him through the meat grinder and fed his remains to the cats. “I couldn’t have run his hand through the grinder,” Baskin laughs about the relatively small machine. “Much less his body.”

The real meat of the documentary series is back at Joe Exotic’s GW park. The park itself is a depressing sight – all steel and concrete – and the cats are fed on out-of-date processed meats from Walmart welfare trucks. (Joe Exotic knows more about keeping tigers than I do, but I’m fairly sure they’re not meant to live off pre-packaged bologna.)

In other bizarre scenes, Joe is married in a three-way wedding to two men. He also broadcasts his own internet show, Joe Exotic TV – which is mostly him slandering and slating Carole Baskin – and films his own country-music videos around the park, including a song about how Baskin murdered her husband. Choice rants include: “Carole, you can guaran-goddam–tee I’m gonna put a cap in your ass,” and “Before I’m done with this I’m going to have the b---h’s head in a jar!”

In one chilling moment, he tells a TV news reporter: “If someone thinks they’re going to come in here and take my animals away, it’s going to be a small Waco”, referring to the 1993 siege between FBI agents and members of the Branch Davidian religious group in Waco, Texas, which culminated in 76 deaths.

The feud escalates to trademark infringement, protests, and Joe flying a helicopter over Baskin’s sanctuary to hunt for evidence of abuse. There’s a sense that beyond the moral issue of big cats in captivity, the Joe Exotic v Carole Baskin rivalry is a popularity contest. There are huge social-media numbers up for the grabs in the big-cat world.

Baskin eventually files a lawsuit against Joe for $1 million, threatening to ruin Joe and beginning his spiral into ego-driven madness. Ultimately, it leads to the plot to have Baskin killed.

Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin aren’t the only eccentrics in Tiger King. There’s Bhagavan “Doc” Antle (real name Kevin), owner of the Myrtle Beach Safari and one-time mentor of Joe Exotic. Fancying himself as a bit of a deity, his chosen name – Bhagavan – means mystical lord. Antle maintains troubling polyamorous relationships with his troupe of young interns, gifting them new names and cosmetic surgery. There’s a persistent rumour about Antle too: that he kills his cats once they get too old and big for showcasing at his zoo.

There’s also Tim Stark, owner of Wildlife in Need, an instantly dislikable character armed with automatic weapons and strange ideas on animal conservation. “Duh! What’s the first thing you should do to protect an endangered species?” he asks about breeding in captivity. “Make more of them!”

Perhaps the shadiest character of them is Jeff Lowe, an exotic animal collector who takes cubs to Vegas parties to seduce women. His arrival at Joe Exotic’s GW Animal Park spells the beginning of the end for Joe – including the murder-for-hire plot against Carole Baskin.

Weirdly, the most likeable of them all is Mario Tabraue – a former drug lord who was apparently the basis for Tony Montana in Scarface. He admits to his part in killing, sawing up and burning the body of a federal informant.

What’s striking about Tiger King is the incredible amount of candid footage – from both the filmmakers and Joe himself – and the number of twists, turns and cat-fights captured during the series’s five-year production.

It’s also not for the squeamish or easily upset. Among the footage are harrowing moments: CCTV of the moment someone commits suicide; Joe making himself the centre of attention at the funeral with one of his country songs; animals being hacked apart for cat food; the immediate aftermath of a park employee having her lower arm bitten off; Joe almost dragged to his death by a lion; tiger cubs snatched away from their mother seconds after being born; and the generally appalling treatment and conditions the cats are forced to endure.

As a portrait of Joe Exotic, the series only gets odder as it goes on. Joe even runs for Governor of Oklahoma near the end. “He actually thought he had a chance,” says John Reinke, a GW park worker with two metal legs (not bitten off, he’s pleased to announce). It’s no surprise that Joe is eventually arrested and imprisoned – a surreal end to a surreal man. The lingering question is not whether Joe plotted to kill Carole Baskin – he’s in prison, after all – but which of the other cat people were involved.

As the series says, there are between 5,000 and 10,000 tigers in captivity in the US, and fewer than 4,000 in the wild. But this is a story about strange, self-aggrandising human beings.“Everyone involved is a so-called animal advocate,” says Kelci Saffery, the park worker missing her lower arm. “Not a single animal benefited from this war.”

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is on Netflix now

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