TAMPA, FL — While Tampa's Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin rehearses dance moves in Los Angeles for her Sept. 14 premiere on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," her arch-rival, Joe Exotic, languishes in a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, serving the second year of a 22-year sentence.
However, the flamboyant star of the eight-part Netflix docuseries,"Tiger King - Murder, Mayhem and Madness," hopes to soon put his captivity behind him. Joe Exotic is appealing to another celebrity, the former star of NBC's "The Celebrity Apprentice," for a get-out-of-jail-free card.
CBS News reported that Joe Exotic has written a letter to President Donald Trump requesting a pardon.
"I am begging you to listen to the millions who see the truth. I'm asking you to listen to your own son Donald Jr. and make this right and grant me a 'miracle pardon' and let me put this behind me," Joe Exotic wrote in block lettering.
In the letter to Trump, Joe Exotic said he needs his freedom so he can care for his 86-year-old father, who is in a nursing home and his current husband, Dillon Passage, "but most of all so I can return to helping sick children and the homeless."
“Be my hero please.” The Tiger King aka Joe Exotic wrote this letter to President #DonaldTrump from prison, seeking a pardon. Makes direct appeal to President’s distrust of fed investigators by framing himself as the victim of dishonest DOJ that lied to further “it’s own agenda.” pic.twitter.com/WKBFOnNeLc
— Paula Reid (@PaulaReidCBS) September 9, 2020
Joe Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, is a former police officer, would-be country singer and an ordained minister who ran for president of the United States in 2016.
But he's best known as the self-proclaimed "Tiger King," featured in the popular Netflix series aired in March and watched by millions of people around the world.
In a story that's stranger than fiction, Joe Exotic, the one-time owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, was arrested by the FBI and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Gulf Breeze, Florida, in 2018 and convicted a year later on nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act including shooting five of his tigers to death and attempting to hire a hit man to kill Baskin.
Baskin, 59, of the nonprofit 67-acre Big Cat Rescue animal sanctuary outside Tampa and a longtime critic of roadside zoos that exploit big cats for profit, became the focus of Joe Exotic's ire nearly two decades ago when she organized protests against Joe Exotic's traveling live tiger shows.
A natural showman, Joe Exotic began touring the country after acquiring two abandoned tigers in 2000. He later added tiger cubs to his show, allowing customers to pay for photo ops with the cuddly cubs that Baskin complained had been cruelly separated from their mothers before they were weaned.
Activists also condemned Joe Exotic for adopting unwanted horses on the pretense of giving them sanctuary and then shooting them and feeding the meat to his tigers.
Though she wasn't alone in her criticism, Joe Exotic fixated on Baskin, launching a campaign of intimidation and harassment that included posting a Youtube music video featuring him singing a song with a Carole Baskin lookalike in which he accuses Baskin of killing her first husband, Tampa millionaire Don Lewis. Lewis was a small plane pilot. He disappeared in 1997 after announcing plans to fly alone to Costa Rica.
Joe Exotic also ripped off Baskin's Big Cat Rescue trademark for his own use. In 2013, he was ordered by the courts to pay Baskin $1 million for trademark infringement, a debt he never paid.
Baskin said Joe Exotic also flew a helicopter over her wildlife sanctuary at a low altitude to purposely distress the big cats living there. And she said he threatened several times to blow her up and watch her burn to death.
Baskin said she lived in constant fear, seeing every stranger as a potential assassin.
"There was no where that I felt safe," she said.
While the FBI delved into the threats against Baskin, U.S. wildlife officials investigated Joe Exoticfor a host of wildlife violations including illegally selling baby lemurs, falsifying paperwork on the sale of endangered species and illegally transporting wildlife across state lines.
But it was his affiliation with another roadside zoo that proved to be his undoing.
Just 36 miles from Baskin's big cat sanctuary in Citrus Park, Florida, Kathy and Randall Stearns operated a for-profit zoo called Dade City's Wild Things.
Dade City's Wild Things caught the attention of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals after the Stearnses advertised a service in which they allowed members of the public to swim with a tiger cub in their backyard swimming pool for an additional fee.
PETA obtained affidavits from employees who said the private zoo was separating tiger cubs from their mothers before they were weaned (some within hours after their births) and then forcing the cubs to swim with strangers. The animal rights group recorded secret videos showing employees forcing frightened tiger cubs into the swimming pool and physically abusing them when they resisted.
PETA also accused Dade City's Wild Things of other violations of the Endangered Species Act including overbreeding tigers, substandard veterinary care, overcrowded and inadequate shelters, and possessing more tigers than allowed at a facility of that size.
The national animal rights group subsequently sued Dade City's Wild Things in federal court and filed an injunction requesting that PETA representatives be allowed to inspect the property. A federal judge granted PETA's request in June 2017 and forbade the zoo from removing any tigers from the property before the inspection was completed.
Nevertheless, the day after the judge issued the order, court documents showed that Wild Things employees sedated 19 tigers and loaded them into a cattle trailer, driving them 1,200 miles to the Oklahoma zoo owned by an acquaintance — Joe Exotic.
A pregnant tiger gave birth in the cattle trailer during the long drive and all three of her cubs died. Witnesses testified that the tigers arrived in Oklahoma in poor condition with severe hide fungus and infected toe nails.
But it was Joe Exotic's actions before the cattle trailer filled with tigers showed up that most shocked employees at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park and prompted to become state witnesses against Joe Exotic.
Telling his employees that he "needed empty cages" to accommodate the 19 tigers from Dade City, Joe Exotic removed five of his older tigers from their cages and shot them to death, burying their bodies on the zoo property.
While U.S. wildlife officials pursued animal cruelty charges against Joe Exotic, the FBI was working on its own case.
A few months after authorities said Joe Exotic executed the five tigers, he offered to pay a hit man $3,000 to drive from Oklahoma to Florida to kill Carole Baskin, promising thousands more once the deed was done.
The hit man Joe Exotic attempted to recruit was actually an undercover FBI agent. The FBI set up the sting after learning Joe Exotic had been trying to hire someone to kill Baskin since July 2016.
"The self-described Tiger King was not above the law," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. Troester said in a news release. Joe Exotic was convicted in April 2019 of two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records, and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.
Joe Exotic was hauled off to federal prison but, unlike the tigers he killed, he didn't stay buried for long. The producers of the "Tiger King" docuseries began filming the series before Joe Exotic was jailed. Joe Exotic gave producers free rein, allowing them to follow him with cameras and submitting to a series of interviews focused on Baskin and his allegations that she killed her first husband.
When the docuseries aired starting in March, Joe Exotic's celebrity status mushroomed. He was inundated with fan mail. Actors Rob Lowe, Jared Leto, Edward Norton and Dax Shepard offered to portray him in a movie about his life.
A television series starring Nicholas Cage is also said to be in the works, reports said.
And the hottest Halloween costume of 2020 featuring Joe Exotic's likeness, complete with a Fu Manchu mustache and circa-1980s bleach-blond mullet haircut.
While there's been no comment from Trump on Joe Exotic's pardon request, Trump was asked during a coronavirus press briefing following the airing of the "Tiger King" series if he would consider pardoning the zookeeper.
Trump replied jokingly, "I'll take a look."
If that doesn't work, Joe Exotic has a backup plan. He's filed a federal lawsuit seeking nearly $94 million in damages, claiming he's the victim of gay bashing. In the suit filed March 17 in federal court in Oklahoma City, Joe Exotic said he was convicted based on false and perjured testimony and singled out for prosecution because he “is an openly gay male with the largest collection of generic tigers and crossbreeds.”