In late March 2020, Netflix released what immediately became the next guilty pleasure documentary: Tiger King. The seven-episode series follows the strange world of exotic cat keepers and breeders that collect, breed, and make money off of tigers. The focus of the series is Joe Exotic, the flamboyant cowboy behind an Oklahoma private "zoo" embroiled in a feud with animal rights activist Carole Baskin. (Though it should be noted, Joe's is not the only controversial tiger park located in Oklahoma!)
Every moment of the series offers a new revelation of eccentricity, beginning with Joe's singular hatred and obsession with Baskin and increasing with every new character introduced in the story. Shock after shock leaves the viewer believing that the documentary depicts every mind-blowing fact about Joe's life. But there is much more to his story.
The documentary introduces three of Joe's husbands, including John Finlay and Dillon Passage, but does not mention Joe's first husband Brian Rhyne or the husband after that. It touches on the demise of Joe's brother as the impetus for the park, but does not question the real story of his accident. In fact, much of Joe's self-presentation is questionable, and his personal life is even more surprising than anyone could imagine.
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Joe’s First Husband Is Never Mentioned
Long before Joe Exotic, there was Joseph Schreibvogel, a young gay man looking for love after moving from his home state of Kansas to Texas. There he met Brian Rhyne, a student at the University of Texas at Dallas. The two "wed" in an unofficial ceremony in the late '80s and went on to own and manage a pet store with Joe's brother in 1989.
In 1995, Joe and Rhyne took a trip from Texas to California, but upon returning home, they soon learned the latter was sick with a fungal infection made worse by his HIV status. In 1999, the pair moved on to G.W. Zoo's property and lived together until Rhyne's passing in December 2001.
John Finlay Went After Joe In A Parking Lot
Joe's third husband, John Finlay, plays a large role in the documentary, and eventually surprises viewers with the admission that despite an 11-year "marriage" to Joe, he isn't gay. Finlay leaves Joe after impregnating an employee at the park in 2014.
What Tiger King leaves out is that Finlay and Joe had an incendiary end to their relationship, resulting in an altercation in the park's back parking lot on August 18, 2014. Police arrested Finlay for assault and battery, but it seems the charges were dropped.
Another Ex-Boyfriend Held A Gun To Joe's Head
Joe's second husband was Jeffrey Charles "J.C." Hartpence, an events producer he met in 2002. Hartpence also did not identify as gay but remained in a relationship with Joe until their split sometime in 2003. The union was tumultuous and Hartpence once pointed a firearm at Joe in their bedroom while drunk and furious. The two men disagreed concerning the focus of the park, with Hartpence believing it should be aiming to release rescued animals into the wild and Joe disagreeing.
Joe once threatened Hartpence with a picture of one of their tigers menacingly posed over a chunk of meat, attaching a Post-it note that read, "If you don’t get your sh*t together, this is gonna be your reality.” In return, Hartpence held a pair of loaded pistols to Joe's head, waking him up to tell him that they were done.
After the two broke up, Hartpence received a life sentence for murder in 2015.
Before It Became Taboo, Joe Proudly Bred Ligers, Tiligers, And Other Hybrids
Throughout the documentary, a couple of the private park owners are seen with a liger (the offspring of a male lion and female tiger) or other hybrid animals in their company. Although Joe is shown exclusively breeding tigers endlessly, he once bred multiple versions of big cat hybrids at his park, including the aforementioned ligers, as well as liligers (the offspring of a male lion and female liger) and tiligers (half tiger and half ligress).
However, the breeding of these animals is harmful to their health. Ligers grow at a rate that they are unable to keep up with, leading to eventual heart failure. Furthermore, many of the offspring have birth defects from inbreeding.
Joe sold the cats for up to $10,000, meeting eventual partner Jeff Lowe while selling him a hybrid cub in 2015.