• Entertainment

Netflix's 'Tiger King' Is The Greatest Story About Petty Feuds, Hitmen, And Wild Animals Ever Told

The Netflix docu-series Tiger King kind of has it all. Its subtitle is "Murder, Mayhem and Madness," but it also features polygamy, cults, and drug running, as well as feuds that would put the Hatfields and McCoys to shame, and a cast of eccentric characters straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel. It centers on the eponymous "Tiger King," Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as "Joe Exotic," a mulleted, openly gay country singer and stage magician who owned the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park until (spoilers) he went to prison for his part in a murder-for-hire plot. Which means, if nothing else, any remaining "Joe Exotic for President" merchandise is a collector's item.

If that sounds like a lot to take in, it still only scratches the surface. Across seven episodes, Tiger King dives deep into the life of Joe Exotic and a rogues' gallery of oddball figures from the world of private big cat ownership. There's the guy who may have been the basis for Scarface, and the guy who supposedly has a cultlike harem of "wives," and the crusader who's trying to end private ownership of big cats using millions she inherited from her husband... who mysteriously disappeared. If this whole thing ended in a bloodier denouement, it would be an Elmore Leonard novel. To put it mildly, the Tiger King facts are stranger than fiction.

The docu-series was produced by conservationist, entrepreneur, and filmmaker Eric Goode - who claims he stumbled upon Exotic while investigating "a notorious reptile dealer" in South Florida - and documentarian Rebecca Chaiklin. Goode founded the Turtle Conservancy as well as a variety of nightclubs and hotels in New York; he also made music videos for the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Lords of Acid, and Terrorvision. Together, he and Chaiklin decided to film a documentary about Joe Exotic, only to get a story way more bizarre than they could ever have bargained for.

  • Photo: Netflix

    Joe Had Several 'Husbands'

    Throughout Tiger King, we are introduced to the various men in Joe's life. At one point, he has two "husbands" at the same time, though one "marriage was more of a show-ceremony than a legal bonding." 

    Joe's first long-term partner, Brian Rhyne, succumbed to complications related to HIV in 2001. According to a profile in New York magazine, Joe was present when Rhyne "breathed his last" and let out a scream "loud enough to make your ears ring." The documentary doesn't mention Rhyne, but spends a lot of time with Joe's two "husbands" - John Finlay, who had a tattoo above his pelvis that read "PRIVATELY OWNED BY JOE EXOTIC," and Travis Maldonado. Both men said they were straight when they met Joe.

    In the midst of Joe's personal and financial problems, Finlay left him for a female coworker at the zoo. Finlay and the woman had been having an affair, and when she became pregnant, Finlay finally parted ways with Joe. Maldonado perished when an arm he had pointed at his own head went off. Had he taken his own life, or was it a terrible mishap? Like so many things in the orbit of Joe Exotic, it depends on whom you ask.

    Within two months, Joe remarried, this time to Dillon Passage. Maldonado's mother was one of the only people present at the ceremony, which she says in the documentary was essentially a publicity stunt to make people think she was okay with it.

    In one of the last scenes in the Netflix series, Finlay, who has testified against Joe in court, goes to a tattoo parlor to get an image of a bull to cover up the "PRIVATELY OWNED BY JOE EXOTIC" tattoo on his pelvis. "Who is Joe Exotic?" the tattoo artist asks.

    "A nobody now," Finlay replies.

  • Photo: Netflix

    Joe And Carole Were Surrounded By Eccentrics

    The feud between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin may be the focus of Tiger King, but the documentary spends plenty of time with other shady or colorful figures in the world of big cats, including a man who goes by the name of Bhagavan "Doc" Antle.

    Antle runs Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina. If some of the individuals interviewed in the documentary (including one former employee) are to be believed, he runs it like a cult. Antle is said to have a "harem" of wives who live in separate houses on the property, recruited from teenage "apprentices" who live in squalor and work for peanuts. Antle himself describes his relationships as "complex."

    And then there's Garretson, who turned the state's evidence against Joe and whom Joe describes as a "mastermind behind illegal credit cards."

    Last but not least, we have Mario Tabraue, a man who spent 12 years in prison for transporting illicit substances and may have been the inspiration for Tony Montana in Scarface. In the documentary, Tabraue says that he got into the illicit trade to support his "animal habit."

  • Photo: Netflix

    Joe Ran For Governor - And President

    The 2016 presidential election was one for the history books, to be sure. While the rest of the country was watching a reality-show businessman swoop in and snatch the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency, another colorful character was also in the running for the job of leader of the free world: Joe Exotic.

    Running a campaign as eccentric as his personality, Joe used slogans like "Joe Exotic speaks for America," and handed out condoms with his picture printed on the wrapper. When his presidential bid ended in failure, an undeterred Joe ran for governor of Oklahoma the following year. Both campaigns were paid for, at least in part, using money he funneled from the zoo, which drove a wedge between Joe and his business partner, Jeff Lowe.

  • Photo: Netflix

    Baskin's Second Husband Disappeared Mysteriously

    Carole Baskin met her second husband, eccentric millionaire Don Lewis, when she was 19 years old and he was 41. Lewis pulled up to her while she was walking down the side of the road at night after a fight with her first husband, whom Baskin says she had to "throw a potato" at in order to get away. Baskin says Lewis approached her several times before he pulled up alongside with a pistol in the passenger seat of his pickup. He told her she could keep it trained on him if it would make her feel better, as he just needed "someone to talk to."

    The two spent the night together, and Lewis ultimately left his wife and children to be with Baskin. Within 10 years, the two were married and had begun a big cat sanctuary, which they paid for by letting guests rent out cabins and spend time with the cats. In 1997, Lewis simply vanished, leaving Baskin a millionaire.

    The documentary details how he and Baskin had been having difficulties in their marriage, suggesting Lewis had intended to divorce her and leave her with nothing. We see images of a protective order he took out against Baskin shortly before his disappearance, saying that "this is the second time she has gotten angry enough to threaten to kill me."

    According to Joe, that's exactly what she did, offing her rich husband and feeding him to the tigers, burying the remains beneath a septic tank on a property they owned. Joe even recorded a song and music video called "Here Kitty Kitty" that featured a Baskin lookalike feeding Lewis to tigers and lions.