Tiger King spoilers follow.
For those that did not already know about Joe Exotic, Netflix's utterly bonkers Tiger King documentary has thrust him into the spotlight. The seven-part true-crime series introduced audiences to the phenomenon of big cat owners in the United States, giving insight and access into the lives of the people that have lions and tigers in their homes.
Tiger King packs a lot into its runtime, veering off into all sorts of weird and uncomfortable places as the filmmakers (also behind the Fyre Festival documentary) tried to keep up with everything unfolding before their cameras.
One aspect that seems to have sparked a conversation on the world wide web is that of Joe Exotic's love life. He's had a number of husbands, some of whom were included in the documentary and some that were not touched on at all.
It's hard to pin down exactly who Joe's husbands were, as apparently he didn't legally marry each of them. But his first is believed to have been a man named Brian Rhyne, who was not mentioned in the Netflix series.
Described as being "a slender, sassy 19-year-old" when he first met Joe (via a 2019 feature in New York's Intelligencer) at a gay cowboy bar called the Round-up Saloon before the zoo came to be. The pair moved in with each other and were unofficially married – in the very same bar – in the late '80s (before same-sex marriage was legal).
After Joe's brother died in a car crash, his parents helped him buy an old horse ranch in Oklahoma. It was here that he set up his zoo, named the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park after his late sibling (who had a love for wild animals). As seen in Tiger King, it became known as the GW Zoo. A deer and a buffalo, two of his brother's pets, were the first inhabitants of the park.
Joe and his first husband Brian started collecting and raising big cats; the first two tigers were named Tess and Tickles, and had been abandoned in a backyard before Joe took them in. The couple took the baby cubs into their home to look after, and built cages and fences on their land to expand along with their animal collection.
Sadly, Brian passed away in 2001 of complications related to HIV. According to those around him at the zoo, it was at about this time that Joe started to morph into more of an outlandish character – bleaching his mullet, getting face lifts and piercing his penis (complete with the padlock he was proud to show off in the series).
It was said in the New York Magazine article that Joe had been loading Brian into a pickup to take him home in the hope that he would be able to die peacefully. "When he breathed his last breath," it says, "Joe screamed loud enough to make your ears ring."
Jeffrey Charles 'JC' Hartpence was Joe's second husband. Also not discussed in the documentary, according to Texas Monthly, Hartpence had a background as an event producer and had helped Joe to develop his shows, including his magic routines as well as the tiger cub petting.
It sounded to be a volatile relationship though – JC reportedly once held a gun to Joe's head while in a "drunk rage" before he left the zoo for good.
Their partnership ended and years later Hartpence was convicted for crimes against a child under the age of 14 and was put on the sex offenders register. He is currently serving a life sentence in prison for first-degree felony murder.
It is important to note that JC Hartpence identified as straight, as did a number of Joe's other partners, including his next husband John Finlay. John had just graduated from high school when he started dating Joe, and there was also another man on the scene known only by the first name of Paul (not in the Tiger King series, and also not gay).
After Paul, Joe met Travis Maldonado (who was also straight). He had started working in the zoo in 2013 having been struggling with an addiction to meth. As with some of Joe's other relationships, there seemed to be an unbalanced power dynamic whereby they needed something that Joe was able to provide (whether security, a home, or something else).
As shown in the documentary, Joe married Travis and John at the same time in one big ceremony. Later that year, John started to grow tired of Joe and his life at the zoo and, Texas Monthly reported, their breakup was quite bitter.
John ended up leaving with the secretary of the zoo, Stormey Sanders. They had a child together and are now married. John also has a new set of teeth – viewers of Tiger King will know that he was missing quite a few of them during his on-screen interviews. As seen in the series, during their relationship Joe had paid for a tattoo for John which read: "PRIVATELY OWNED BY JOE EXOTIC" – but he has now had that removed.
According to Robert Moor, author of the aforementioned New York article and Joe Exotic-themed podcast host, John has now left the big cat industry. In a tweet, he revealed: "I see a lot of people asking about John, Joe's ex-husband. He texted me a few months back to let me know he got a new job as a welder."
Travis tragically died in October 2017 after he accidentally shot himself – a terrible incident that, rather uncomfortably, was documented in the series and happened in front of another zoo employee. He was just 23 years old at the time, and it was made clear in Tiger King how hard Joe took it and how much it affected his behaviour.
Two months after Travis' death, Joe married Dillon Passage. An early date of theirs was featured in the series, and he started living with Joe a few days later. Prior to that, Dillon had apparently been sleeping on an air mattress at a relative's house.
When Joe left his zoo behind, following a major disagreement with Jeff Lowe, Dillon went into hiding with him. As viewers of Tiger King will know, Joe was arrested and eventually convicted for involvement in a murder-for-hire plot against rival and Big Cat Rescue owner Carole Baskin. The documentary closed with Dillon standing by Joe, who is currently serving 22 years in prison, and it looks as though they are still married.
Since the documentary aired, Passage has updated viewers on his and Joe's relationship while also clarifying a few details too. During a call to Sirius XM 's Andy Cohen Live, Dillon said (Via EW):
"I met him a few months after [Exotic's third husband] Travis [Maldonado] passed away. So we first started chatting on Grindr in Oklahoma."
"The first time we actually met on [Tiger King], it was like it was our first date, but we had actually met the night before. Me and my cousin went down to the safari bar, which was a little restaurant bar he had about half a mile away from the zoo, and he sang to me — he did karaoke that night."
"He was just super sweet to me and he came off as genuine and a good, down-to-Earth guy. He's very charismatic."
Passage told listeners that he remains faithful, and touched on how his husband is coping with the coronavirus pandemic in jail:
"We speak three to five times every day. But since he's been moved to this new facility, they're putting him in COVID-19 isolation because of the previous jail that he was in there were cases. So I have yet to speak to him since he's been moved."
When asked for his thoughts on the documentary's controversy, Passage said:
"The producers, they put the story together very, very well, I think. They stayed true to the entire storyline. And I even learned a lot of things I didn't know about Carole and Joe's feud, cuz I try to stay out of his business. It wasn't my place, you know, I wasn't necessarily involved."
After the documentary's release on the streaming platform, Carole has condemned her portrayal and the film's contents as "salacious" (a criticism that the filmmakers have responded to and denied).
Joe, meanwhile, has filed a $94 million lawsuit against a number of US government departments and individuals – including series stars James Garretson and Jeff Lowe – in a federal court in Oklahoma. He is also demanding a presidential pardon.
Joe Exotic pleaded not guilty to all charges, and has insisted he had been charged "illegally", while the US Department of Justice has not yet commented on the suit.
While Tiger King does not appear to take a clear stance, or present one 'right' or one 'wrong' side, many true-crime fans and armchair detectives have taken away a certain viewpoint from the information presented in the documentary.
It is worth keeping in mind that there is only so much that could have been included in the hours given, and a lot was left out of the series.
Former reptile dealer Jeff Johnson, who was interviewed in the series, had been friends with Joe until they had a falling out. Johnson started his own online campaign, claiming Joe and Jeff Lowe were frauds, and they, in turn, retaliated online. Apparently Johnson's house burned down under mysterious circumstances (according to the aforementioned Robert Moor).
What's more, journalist Moor shared a taped conversation that was heard at the trial, which he argues paints an incriminating picture of Joe:
While investigating the story for his own work, Moor revealed that he had received a message from Joe's phone which included a number saved under "Mike Hit".
"I called up the number. It turned out to be a guy named 'Psycho Mike'," he said as part of a detailed Twitter thread.
"He was a former hitman (or "bone collector") for a Mexican gang in Dallas," Moor claimed. "He'd since given that life up. Recently he'd been helping Joe try to get a zoo opened in Dallas. I asked whether Joe ever approached him about killing Carole. He said no."
Moor also shared a disturbing allegation of a time when "Joe told everyone he was dying from prostate & bone marrow cancer" and had been able to raise "$$$ from his Facebook fans for his expenses".
"He showed me this horrifying photo as proof," he tweeted, along with a picture of Joe in hospital. "I later learned he just had an infected prostate, dehydration, & a bad outbreak of herpes."
Hopefully, viewers will learn more if a rumoured extra episode does indeed arrive soon on Netflix — assuming of course that Jeff Lowe is to be believed.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is available to stream on Netflix.
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