Like 99 percent of the world’s population, I’ve spent days on lockdown watching Netflix’s insane Tiger King docuseries, marveling at its lineup of misfits and criminals and wondering how any of it is even real.
Unlike many, though, I know almost everybody involved. Last year I spent several weeks on the road between Oklahoma and Florida, meeting dozens of folks whose lives were, and still are, affected by Joe Exotic’s reign of terror at the GW Zoo. And while Tiger King might be the most meme-worthy show of all time, it isn’t quite the whole story. The truth is far darker—and Joe Exotic is hardly the hero so many of us are pining for in this time of crisis. Here are some key facts you didn’t see on TV.
Joe Exotic’s Founding Myth Is Just That
Joe says he began touring his anti-drugs and alcohol magic shows when a drunk driver hit and killed his brother Garold on I-45, just outside Dallas. Garold was killed in that wreck. But no records indicate alcohol was involved. Joe persuaded his parents to spend the insurance payout on land that became the GW Zoo, in Wynnewood, Oklahoma—despite Garold’s family’s hopes to build a soccer field near their home in southern Oklahoma. Joe never switched off Garold’s life support, either. “He’s a goddamn, what do you call it, a Charles Manson,” Joe’s brother Yarri told me.
Joe’s Animal-Abuse Story Runs Deep
Joe founded the GW Zoo just as a nationwide craze for emu oil and meat was crashing. One Plano rancher named Kuo Wei Lee, was broke and let more than a hundred of his birds loose on a highway in 1999. Joe and an associate arrived to “rescue” the emus, planning to keep some at the zoo. Over two days of bedlam, Joe and his friend shot six emus dead—some of which “flopped and jumped, requiring several shots,” according to a local report. Fourteen more died from stress. “We’re hurt, and we’re tired, and now we’re responsible,” he said unapologetically. Despite anger from cops and a grand jury convening, Joe escaped indictment and continued to build the park.
The Abuse Was Really, Really Bad
As early as 2004, Joe was a key player in North America’s illegal wildlife trade. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture suspended Joe’s license and fined him for keeping animals in poor, dirty conditions. But as drug use on the park increased, its animal abuse turned vaudevillian. Crew members tossed live animals into tiger enclosures for fun. Many exotics starved to death. Cubs were hit, a staffer bit the head off a live snake, and another smoked a joint with a monkey.
Joe ran over emus in a four-wheeler so he could sell bones to a local museum, and shot animals on camera for fun. A big-cat burial pit smelled so bad, Joe’s father said it reminded him of killing fields during the Korean War. “I saw brutality against some animals that I almost can’t speak of,” Rick Kirkham, Joe’s onetime reality-show producer, told me. Joe abused his staff, too, cutting off their food or throwing them off the park altogether. Many compared it to a cult. Joe’s ex-husband John Finlay’s steroid and meth addiction got so bad he overdosed and wound up in the local ER. “I try to block that stuff out,” he told me.
Joe Never Sang Those Country Songs
In early 2013, Joe posted an ad to Craigslist for musicians to help him build a country-singing career. Two Vancouver, Washington-based musicians, Vince Johnson and Danny Clinton, answered the call. Over the following two years, they wrote and performed tunes that Joe lip-synced in music videos. Joe never admitted it wasn’t his voice. Johnson thought it was laughable. “He’s got a terrible speaking voice,” he said. “Like fingernails on a blackboard.” Joe Exotic’s first song, “I Saw a Tiger,” was a pretty straightforward eulogy to his zoo-keeping career. In “Pretty Woman Lover” (I’m a pretty woman lover / I’m an ugly woman’s dream), a biker Joe held off hordes of adoring female fans.
Johnson and Clinton also worked on a song called “Killer Carole,” but it never saw the light of day, and Joe’s music career was short-lived. Joe constantly complained about Florida rival Carole Baskin to Johnson. He “called her a crackhead murdering two-bit whore, among other things,” Johnson wrote me via email. “But I never thought he was nuts enough to try and kill her.” The final straw came when Joe stiffed Vince on his payment. “You ripped me off, man,” Vince said. Joe ignored him, and the relationship died.
Oh, and another musical link: The alligators that died when Joe’s TV studio burned down previously belonged to Michael Jackson’s estate.
Joe Tried to Squeeze Cash Out of Travis’ Death
After Joe’s husband Travis’ tragic death in October 2016, Joe set up a charity called the Travis Maldonado Foundation, which claimed it would provide “no-cost resources for those struggling with meth addiction and gun-safety education.” But a link to donate at the group’s website actually sent proceeds to the United States Zoological Association, an outfit long known as Joe’s personal slush fund. Travis’ father Danny, a Marine veteran, doesn’t even believe the ashes Joe gave him—which are white rather than gray—are indeed from Travis.
Bonus: Jeff Lowe’s Rap Sheet Is Far, Far Longer
This is about as surprising as Joe’s singing voice. Tiger King mentions Jeff Lowe’s trouble in Las Vegas, and an assault on his ex-wife. What it doesn’t say is that Jeff also pleaded guilty to mail-fraud charges in 2008, when he posed as the employee of a domestic-abuse survivors’ charity to obtain $1 million of merchandise that he would later resell for a profit.
Jeff’s plans in Thackerville, Oklahoma, unsurprisingly fell through—and he screwed over many more folks than Tim Stark (whose own history of animal abuse is shocking). Jeff convinced an old South Carolina neighbor named Joe Barth to move drive-in movie-theater equipment to Oklahoma, before reneging on the deal and—according to Barth—stealing the gear. Days later, Barth’s Beaufort home burned down. Soon after, Alan Glover asked him for a ride back to South Carolina. Barth refused. He told me he still fears for his safety. If that weren’t enough, Jeff called Dillon Passage, Joe’s last husband, a “faggot” on many occasions.