If you’re one of the three people who haven’t watched “Tiger King,” Netflix’s pop culture phenomenon, this is your warning: here be spoilers. And if you have watched “Tiger King,” here be information you don’t already know.
Imagine a Shakespearean dramedy set not in fair Verona but in Walmart at three in the morning. Everyone is wearing their pajamas, half the patrons aren’t wearing shoes, and someone is cooking meth in a shopping cart. You may think I’m exaggerating for the sake of drama; I’m not. “Tiger King” is an undisputed train wreck — but the train is on fire, the tracks are on fire, and everything is on fire because you’re in hell.
Born with a mouthful of a name, Joe Schreibvogel, our enthusiastic tour guide into the nightmarish kingdom over which he rules, can best be described as eccentric. Joe’s depiction of his own background is both harrowing and heart-breaking. At the age of five, he was repeatedly raped by an older boy.
He claims his parents, described as cold, saw him as a laborer on the family farm in Kansas rather than as a child. No one in his family ever said “I love you,” according to Joe.
Joe dreamt of becoming a veterinarian, he says. He got his first taste of playing god while he served as president of his local 4-H chapter: after shooting sparrows with his BB gun, he would then “doctor” them back to health. His family moved a lot, first from Kansas to Wyoming and then Wyoming to Texas. This is where the details of Joe’s story become a little fuzzy.
Joe is only vaguely remembered by most of his peers if he is remembered at all, yet he claims to have covered the parking lot in roofing nails in retaliation for being bullied, popping the tires of over one hundred cars. No one who attended Joe’s school at that time — including the principal — remembers this.
Joe somehow became the sheriff of the microscopic Texas town of Eastvale, where Joe lived with a girlfriend named Kim despite being openly gay. Joe says he was so ashamed of himself he crashed his police cruiser into a concrete embankment, offering a photo of the totaled car as proof.
Despite this, no one from Eastvale — or Joe’s own family — have any recollection of the crash Joe says broke his back and caused him to spend almost two months in traction. Joe says he relocated to West Palm Beach to take part in an experimental saltwater rehabilitation program; Joe’s boyfriend at the time says his “saltwater rehabilitation” was snorkeling, though he does claim Joe suffered from a broken shoulder.
Returning to Texas, Joe met his first husband, Brian Rhyne, and the pair went to work at a zoo with Garold Wayne, Joe’s brother, and planned to one day purchase the place for themselves. In 1997, Garold Wayne was killed in a horrific accident en route to Florida.
Joe used the resulting settlement from the accident — dubbed “blood money” by his parents — to purchase a decrepit horse ranch in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, renaming it the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park — called the G.W. Zoo by locals.
Joe staffed his facility with ex-convicts he found on Craigslist, giving them a fresh start and a roof over their heads, earning their unshakable loyalty in return. He acquired over a dozen big cats, which he fed expired meat donated by Walmart. Joe’s own employees, who made under $200 a week and lived in trailers without running water, got first pick off the food truck.
There was never enough money to make ends meet, prompting Joe to begin breeding and selling cubs, and then tragedy struck once again. In 2001, Brian Rhyne died of complications from HIV.
Before the year was out, Joe met and married Jeffrey Charles “J.C.” Hartpence, an events producer, and joined forces with a skilled magician named Johnny Magic. The trio went on tour, charging $5 at local flea markets to those who wanted their pictures taken with a tiger named Clint Black.
When this proved too dangerous, they began using cuter, sweeter baby tigers and expanded their tour of flea markets to include shopping malls. But this was a happily-never-after in the making. Johnny Magic split, and Joe’s marriage soured when J.C. wanted Joe to stop breeding cubs and turn the zoo into a rehabilitation center instead.
Joe’s true colors began to show. He stole Johnny Magic’s tricks, and Joe Schreibvogel fashioned himself a new name: Joe Exotic. A god in his own mind, Joe thought himself untouchable and threatened his husband with pictures of their tiger, Goliath, eating meat labeled “J.C.’s remains.”
After holding two guns on Joe, J.C. was arrested. A convicted pedophile, J.C. is currently serving a life sentence for an unrelated murder. In 2002, Joe hired and began a meth-fueled relationship with then-nineteen year old John Finlay, who has always identified as straight, and paid for him to be tattooed. Sitting just above his groin, the tattoo read: “PRIVATELY OWNED BY JOE EXOTIC.”
Painting himself as both hero and victim, Joe Exotic trapped those closest to him in his web of lies. He supplied Finlay with all the meth he wanted, showered him with gifts of expensive firearms and numerous trucks, bragged about making close to $25,000 in five days of touring, and borrowed money from everyone willing to lend it.
He also brought yet another straight man, a young California native named Travis Maldonado, into his relationship with Finlay, wooing him with alcohol and drugs. The trio married, though Finlay claims it was never legal. But while it had action and romance, Joe’s lacked something every good story needs: a villain.
Enter Carole Baskin.
In her youth, Carole Stairs was a pretty girl with frizzy blonde hair, huge blue eyes, and full, pouty lips. She was often told she “looked like that girl on TV.” Like Joe, Carole dreamt of being a veterinarian as a child. Like Joe, she was the victim of sexual abuse. Carole ran away from home at the age of fifteen, hitchhiking her way from Florida to Maine.
After returning to Tampa, she met her first husband, Mike, her boss at the discount retail store where she worked. Then living out of her car, a bright orange Datsun, Carole fell in love with Mike when he offered to let her cat live with him so the heat of being cooped up in the hot car during the day wouldn’t kill the poor thing. She moved in, too, and quickly became pregnant at the age of seventeen.
Theirs was an abusive relationship, she said. She refused to leave because she didn’t know how to be a single mother. After a bizarre meeting with a man who told her she could hold his gun on him if she would get into his car, Carole began an affair with him. She thought he was named Bob Martin.
In reality, he was Jack “Don” Lewis, a married father and multimillionaire. They left their respective spouses and married in 1991, purchasing their first bobcat at auction. Fifty-six bobcat kittens soon followed, and by the mid-90s, Carole and Don Lewis had amassed more than one hundred cats kept on a 40-acre zoo they named Wildlife on Easy Street, where they also opened a bed and breakfast so visitors could spend sleepless-yet-exhilarating nights with bobcats and cougars.
But Don was venomous, Carole claims. Despite appearing in videos teaching others how to breed and sell big cats, Carole says she vehemently opposed the idea. According to Carole, Don was stingy and had a wandering eye. Her wedding ring was a cubic zirconia, and he would dumpster-dive for groceries. Carole laughs it off when confronted with her own violent tendencies in “Tiger King.”
Don was so frightened he told those closest to him that he thought something might happen to him soon. He even attempted to file a restraining order against her after Carole allegedly threatened him with a gun and hid his own firearm; the petition was denied. He later gave it to his assistant, Anne McQueen, and asked her to keep it safe in the event that something happened to him. Just a few weeks later, Don Lewis went missing.
One of many theories is that Carole killed her husband and fed his remains to her tigers. While I can’t say that’s what happened, her behavior around the time of Don Lewis’ disappearance was unusual at best.
On the night of Don’s disappearance, her car broke down at three in the morning when Carole says she was going to purchase milk byproduct from Albertsons, and her brother, a sheriff’s deputy she claims to barely know because she left the house at such a young age, gave her a ride home.
Carole later broke into McQueen’s office and stole the paperwork from beneath her desk. A fierce property battle between Carole and Don’s children ensued, but control of his estate remained in Carole’s hands thanks to an odd clause in his power of attorney form, which was prepared by Carole herself: “In the event of my disability or disappearance.”
And Carole planted seeds to lead others to believe his disappearance was caused by disability. He could remember things from his past but not what happened five minutes before, she claimed. Anne McQueen disagreed strongly, as did Don’s business manager, his handy man, his children, and even his ex-wife, the woman he left after thirty years — for Carole.
Even more suspiciously, Don’s daughter asked the police to test a meat grinder found on Carole’s property for DNA; they refused. (In the documentary, Carole laughs, stating the meat grinder is too small for her to fit even a hand let alone a body.) When Lewis’ truck was found parked at a local airport, it was taken back to Carole’s property and left for days without being searched.
Following Don’s disappearance, Carole dated a man named Jay Bakyals, who also filed a restraining order against her. When he asked Carole what would happen to them if Don returned, she allegedly said, “A dead body cannot talk.”
Five years and one day after Jack “Don” Lewis disappeared, Carole had him declared legally dead. Describing the day she received the death certificate, Carole says she looked out the window and lost all sense of awareness until nightfall. Later that year, she met Howard Baskin, a Harvard-educated business consultant. They wed two years later. Howard’s goal in life, he says, is to make Carole happy.
With Howard’s help, Wildlife on Easy Street was rebranded Big Cat Rescue. (Lest you think Carole is a noble heroine, don’t forget that she only employs volunteers, unpaid labor, who are asked to forego everything from Christmases to funerals, all for the honor of wearing a different colored t-shirt as they move up in the ranks. Carole doesn’t bother to learn their names until they’ve been there for years.)
Carole’s hope was to end the breeding, sale, and public display of big cats everywhere, even in zoos. The relationship between Carole and her former step-children remained tense. Until they were interviewed for “Tiger King,” they had stopped speaking out against Carole. They are afraid of her, they said. Joe Exotic was not.
Under the tutelage of Myrtle Beach Safari’s Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, a man with a flowing silver ponytail and piercing blue eyes, Joe Exotic had made a name for himself as the largest breeder of tigers in the country, viewing himself as a sort of tiger messiah. Captivity was the only hope, he insisted. If you didn’t support breeding, said the self-proclaimed Tiger King, then you were in favor of extinction.
Carole Baskin disagreed. She saw cub-petting enterprises as the root of all evil, claiming it accounted for ninety percent of cubs born into captivity. She began to take note of the heavily-tattooed magician with the bleached mullet who appeared in numerous photos taken at malls promoting his magic show where guests could pet and have their pictures taken with cubs.
Sometimes the magician used the name Cody Ryan. Sometimes he was billed as Aarron Alex. More often than not, he used his “real” name: Joe Exotic.
Carole began emailing the malls and threatened to expose them on Big Cat Rescue’s YouTube channel, which boasted millions of hits per month. She even hired someone to follow Joe’s tour bus full-time, and eventually, she won. The malls promised not to host Joe’s traveling show again.
Predictably, Joe got angry. He felt that he was under attack and tattooed three bleeding bullet wounds on his chest. At one point, he chartered a helicopter to fly over Big Cat Rescue, causing one of Carole’s cats to have a seizure, and wildly discussed the idea of dropping grenades from the chopper.
One of Carole’s former employees stole her diary, which Joe began reading aloud on his own YouTube channel as well as sharing his theory that Carole killed Don Lewis and fed him to a tiger. He offered a $10,000 reward for any information that led to Carole’s arrest in Lewis’ murder. He even filmed a music video starring a Carole lookalike, depicting how he thought the murder happened. (I don’t disagree.)
If you haven’t watched it in full, “Here Kitty Kitty” is a ride from start to finish.
But wait! There’s more! Before you find yourself saying, “Joe isn’t actually a bad singer,” that isn’t Joe singing. It’s a Washington State group called the Clinton Johnson Band, hired by Joe and duped into believing they would be credited in his reality series. Rick Kirkham, the producer of “Tiger King” as well as Joe’s failed reality show (more on that later), claims Joe is essentially tone-deaf and can’t play guitar at all, causing them to shoot his videos strategically to hide his hands while he “played.”
But the internet battle wasn’t enough for Joe Exotic. Feeling hunted, he decided to wage war in real life. He hired a man named Aaron Stone to replicate Big Cat Rescue’s logo and called his own company Big Cat Rescue Entertainment, with the word entertainment so faded the logos were virtually indistinguishable.
Then, to cement the illusion that he was connected to Carole’s facility, he registered a Florida phone number and address, having the calls and mail forwarded to his Oklahoma residence. Carole filed a lawsuit and won a $1 million judgment against Joe, money he could never hope to pay.
One bright spot in all the drama was that Joe’s court battle drew the attention of a production company called Good Clean Fun, the producers behind The Bachelor. While that particular deal fell through, it gave Joe an idea. He would make his own show. He put together a crew, filmed a reel, and eventually hired producer Rick Kirkham.
Kirkham, who was interested in making things as theatrical as possible, had a throne built for Joe and placed it inside a tiger enclosure. Joe locked himself in his office, repeatedly playing the clip showing him in what he believed to be his rightful place — the Tiger King on his throne, lording over his kingdom.
In reality, he was almost destitute. He transferred the land to his mother, filed bankruptcy, and brought in Jeff Lowe, a sketchy character in his own right, to run the zoo while Joe himself became the “entertainment director.”
But Joe’s fresh start was fraught with pain and destruction, and he grew increasingly more paranoid. One of Joe’s workers, Saff, lost his arm in an accident with a tiger. He was given the choice of two years of reconstructive surgeries or amputation. Fearing what might become of Joe and the zoo, he chose amputation and returned to work a week later.
Upon learning of the accident, Joe’s only concern was that he would be ruined financially. For his part, Saff fully believes in Joe’s inherent goodness with all the vehemence of a brainwashed zealot still in awe of his cult’s charismatic leader.
Rick Kirkham, on the other hand, lost his faith in Joe. After a heated argument during which Kirkham pointed out that he owned all the footage in the on-site studio, the studio mysteriously burned down while Joe, who rarely left the property, just so happened to be attending a funeral in Chicago.
Or so he said. The fire obliterated the reptile habitat; it also destroyed hundreds of hours of footage and several hard drives Joe feared may one day implicate him in court. The fire was officially classified as arson, and while Joe insists Carole had paid Kirkham $20,000 to set the fire, Kirkham suspects Joe.
Kirkham quit the production and returned to Dallas; six months later, a fire destroyed his home, killing his dog and almost taking Kirkham’s life, as well. The officer in charge of the Wynnewood zoo’s arson investigation, Brion Gordon, was also Joe Exotic’s limo driver.
Back at G.W. Zoo, things had gone to hell in a hand basket. Joe, growing more unhinged, claimed to be suffering from both prostate and bone marrow cancer to collect donations. He regularly discussed Carole Baskin’s murder, even joking to rapper Radio Raheem, “I never used to fantasize about somebody’s brains on the wall.”
Increasingly paranoid with each passing day, Joe discovered his paranoia had basis in fact. Employees were found giving information to animal rights groups. Listening devices were found on the roof of Joe’s office. But the knives in Joe Exotic’s back would be driven home by his own business partners and friends.
Jeff Lowe, Robbie Knievel’s former manager and a big cat owner from Beaufort, covered his receding hairline with black caps and squeezed his middle-aged paunch into strategically ripped skinny jeans. He drove a Ferrari he couldn’t make payments on, rented a mansion he claimed was his, and felt Joe saw him as his next victim. In a sense, Joe became his.
Having signed ownership of the zoo over to Jeff Lowe, Joe felt his supposedly uber-wealthy new friend would help him take on Carole Baskin. (Lowe’s attempt to open his own flea market cub-petting venture failed, and Lowe himself blamed Baskin, calling her “the devil incarnate.”)
But Jeff seemed more interested in smuggling tiger cubs into Vegas hotels in Louis Vuitton dog carriers and charging rich, beautiful women $2,000 a pop to pet them. He was also interested in getting Joe Exotic out of his way.
In Oklahoma, shocked by husband John Finlay’s sudden departure after John became involved with and impregnated Amber, an employee of the zoo, Joe Exotic decided to assume a new persona: presidential candidate. When that failed to have the impact he hoped for, he decided to start a little closer to home and ran as governor on the Libertarian ticket.
Josh Dial, Joe’s campaign manager, claims Joe didn’t even know what a Libertarian was and compared the man to “Donald Trump on meth.” During Joe’s gubernatorial campaign, his husband, Travis Maldonado, accidentally shot and killed himself in front of Dial. He was twenty-three years old.
Joe lost interest in the zoo and his campaign, and he possibly suffered from a psychotic break, claiming he saw the word “hi” in the clouds, sensing Travis’ presence in a honeybee that landed on his finger. Joe says he tried to shoot himself with his .357, but the hammer merely dented the primer and failed to fire; he made a necklace out of the bullet.
He also took it as a sign to begin dating again, so he had his employees search Grindr and Twitter for prospective boyfriends. Two months after Travis Maldonado’s death, he married Dillon Passage. Travis’ mother attended the wedding, and Joe cut ties with her immediately afterward.
Alan Glover, who once worked with Jeff Lowe in South Carolina, relocated to the zoo at Lowe’s behest. Alan and Joe meshed as well as oil and water. Alan refused to take orders from Joe, pointing out that he was Jeff’s employee, not Joe’s. He joked about dropping his chainsaw on Joe’s head.
Joe Maldonado-Passage began telling everyone he wanted out. In addition to donating twenty tigers, three bears, two baboons and chimpanzees to PETA, an organization he openly loathed and had often feuded with over the years, he shot five of his tigers. He claimed they were all in need of euthanasia, but employees who were present that day insist they were in perfect health.
One employee heard Joe say, “Jesus, if I knew it was this easy, I’d just blast them all.” Joe’s talk of killing Carole Baskin became a weekly, if not daily, ordeal.
Behind the scenes, Jeff Lowe and James Garretson, a man Joe considered a friend, were scheming. While Joe attempted to recruit Alan as a hitman to kill Carole Baskin, Garretson recorded the conversation. Lowe encouraged talk of killing Baskin, frequently saying the world would be a better place without her in it. Garretson asked Jeff Lowe if he thought the FBI would grant him immunity; Lowe told him the FBI was only interested in Joe, not Garretson himself.
And so Garretson questioned Alan Glover about the upcoming hit. Alan said he could not carry a firearm because he was a convicted felon, but he could buy a knife in Tampa and use it to cut off Carole Baskin’s head; Joe said that was fine by him. Once he was in Tampa, Alan said, no one would hear from him until the murder had been committed. If anyone ratted him out, Alan would burn them and their families alive, he said.
Instead of killing Carole Baskin, Alan Glover went home to South Carolina, where he spent Joe’s money on alcohol and strippers. Frustrated by their inability to arrest Joe Exotic, the FBI sent in an undercover agent they called “Mark” to pose as a new hitman-for-hire.
With the help of Garretson and Lowe, the FBI had Joe Exotic right where they wanted him. Mark asked for $10,000 to kill Carole Baskin, half before the murder, half upon completion. He told Mark to approach Carole in a parking lot and “cap her.” Strapped for cash, Joe said he would “just sell a bunch of tigers.”
Jeff Lowe returned to Wynnewood after being arrested in Vegas for illegal possession of exotic animals and firearms. When he returned, he discovered Joe had misappropriated zoo funds for his gubernatorial campaign. Joe also wanted to euthanize ten tigers, which Lowe prevented, ordering him from the property.
Posting a farewell video from the back of his limo, Joe claimed the industry had “sucked the life out of him.” Joe, convinced he was being followed, took Dillon and went on the run. They claimed to be in California and then Belize, but Garretson recognized the ocean in the photos posted on Instagram: “That’s Florida water. That’s panhandle water.”
One September morning in Gulf Breeze, Florida, Joe Maldonado-Passage was arrested. The FBI had finally tracked down Alan Glover. They had the information they needed to make the arrest.
The Tiger King is currently in quarantine after being transferred to a Federal Bureau of Prisons medical center in Fort Worth. He was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison for two counts of murder-for-hire and seventeen counts of exotic animal abuse.
His most vocal defender is Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who holds court over his own so-called utopia in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Joe, according to Doc, was framed. If not for Jeff Lowe egging him on and James Garretson recording conversations taken out of context, Joe would not be in prison.
Here is where my review gets personal. I knew Doc Antle. My friends listened to me sing his praises for years. My brother and I even discussed moving to Myrtle Beach to work with him. I will say this now: I was wrong. Big cats don’t belong in captivity. Cub-pettings are not the way to save these creatures; wildlife preservation is. But, for a time, I contributed to captivity culture, and I am so sorry.
My brother and I belong to the Steve Irwin generation. To this day, we’re both more comfortable with animals than we are with people. During my late teens and early twenties, I frequently visited Doc’s Myrtle Beach Safari with my brother.
We bottle-fed baby tigers and chatted with Doc’s son, Kody. I adored Doc, a man I considered funny and engaging and, above all, dedicated to his cats. I turned a blind eye to Doc’s many, scantily-clad female employees, many of whom are his partners. I don’t judge polygamy; to each their own. What I do judge is Doc’s view of women.
“Men are pigs, and women are sheep,” he told a woman my brother and I knew as Bala. (Her name is Barbara, and she got out after she was talked into getting breast implants and realized the only way to move up in the ranks was to sleep with Doc.)
In December of 2019, Doc’s facility was raided. No charges were filed, and the raid itself was connected to cubs purchased from a facility under investigation in Virginia, but accusations that he euthanized cubs who were no longer useful and disposed of their remains in an on-site crematorium are still being whispered behind cupped hands. I want to say Doc could never do that, but I’ve seen a hidden darkness in him even Netflix failed to capture.
At the time, my brother was deathly afraid of chimps. Doc’s response was to throw a chimp at him. He caught it, of course, and he held it, and he let them take his picture with it.
But what if he’d ducked? What if my brother’s fear of the chimp had overridden his concern for the animal’s safety? Doc’s reckless disregard for the chimp’s life is something I find especially haunting now.
Doc is a womanizer who uses the allure of exotic animals to draw women into the fold. Even Barbara, who had the sense to leave, speaks of him with a note of reverence in his tone. I have to face facts: a man I once held in the highest regard is, as even he acknowledges, a pig.
He is also a cult leader, preying upon young women who view him as an earthbound deity. You, too, can become enlightened. All you have to do is sleep with him.
Is he the monster some people say he is? I don’t know, but I do know this: Doc Antle belongs in jail alongside the Tiger King.
So do Jeff Lowe, James Garretson, and Carole Baskin. If an FBI agent had behaved the way Lowe and Garretson did, the case would have been thrown out on the basis of entrapment. While I don’t believe they framed him, I do believe they exacerbated the issue.
They knew Joe was unstable and added fuel to an already roaring fire. This does not absolve Joe Maldonado-Passage; he abused his animals, hired two people to murder Carole Baskin, and deserves every one of those twenty-two years of his sentence, but Lowe and Garretson are far from innocent.
As for Carole Baskin, I firmly believe she murdered her husband. The story she told Netflix was the same story she told the media when Don Lewis initially went missing. Verbatim. Rehearsed. She expressed no remorse when she discussed Lewis, often gazing into the camera with a smug smile on her face or outright laughing.
Baykals’ restraining order against her also speaks volumes, in my opinion. Additionally, Sheriff Chad Chronister of Hillsborough County, Florida, has asked the public for new leads in the disappearance of Don Lewis. How that will affect Carole and her latest project, a virtual zoo, remains to be seen.
As for the others, Rick Kirkham has made a fortune off “Tiger King,” which he claims failed to capture how “evil and confused” Joe really is. According to Kirkham, Joe shot a horse he promised to keep for a woman who could no longer afford it and fed it to his animals.
Kirkham also says Joe confided in him that he wasn’t sure if he was really gay. John Finlay, the poster child for meth mouth, has new teeth. He looks amazing. His “PRIVATELY OWNED BY JOE EXOTIC” tattoo has been covered by a bull’s head, and John is now engaged to a woman named Stormi.
Jeff Lowe has four pending court cases against him in Las Vegas. The hearing was originally scheduled for June 1, but with the pandemic sweeping the globe, it will likely be changed.
Doc Antle’s zoo remained open until last week, when South Carolina’s shelter-in-place order closed all nonessential businesses.
Dillon Passage, who spoke to his husband three times a day initially, says he has not spoken to him since he was transferred to quarantine.
Over 4,500 words in, and I still wonder if I’ve done enough to impart the real lesson of “Tiger King:” They are all despicable people, and the ones who suffer most of all are the animals. All that money wasted on legal battles could have been spent on wildlife preservation, and it makes me sick to see people getting rich off the animals they claim to love.
Those are my thoughts on “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness.” You can watch it on Netflix if you haven’t already. What did you think? Do you believe Carole killed Don? Sound off in the comments!
Update: Fifteen minutes after my blog post went live, I received the following Twitter notification. I guess any publicity is good publicity.