The Illusionist: How Tiger King’s Joe Exotic Duped Us All

Source: Netflix

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.

How It Began

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.

The Early Days

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.

Welcome to the Zoo

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.

Source: Netflix

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.

Strange Relationships

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.

The Disappearance

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.”

A New Life

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. 

Carole vs. Joe

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.

Things Escalate

Predictably, Joe got angry. He felt that he was under attack and tattooed three bleeding bullet wounds on his chest to depict his perceived persecution. At one point, he even 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.”

The Courts Get Involved

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.

The Shit-show Begins

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.

The G.W. Zoo Fire

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’s Arrival

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.

Political Aspirations?

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.

The Plot Thickens

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 said he would burn them and their families alive.

The Assassination Attempt That Never Was

Instead of killing Carole Baskin — or even attempting it — 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.”

The Arrest

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.

Source: Netflix

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.)

The Myrtle Beach Drama

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 of our last visit, 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.

Opinion Time

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.


Self-Care In The Time Of Coronavirus

self-care in the time of coronavirus

With social distancing serving as the new catchphrase and entire countries under quarantine, I think I speak for us all when I say, “I’ve had my three month free trial of 2020, and I’d like to return it now.”

This sucks. This completely sucks, and what sucks even more than people dying in droves is the number of people who blatantly disregard orders to stay at home. I get it. You’re bored. You want to go see a movie or go to Sephora. So do I. But you know what I want more than that? For my mom, who is battling cancer, to stay alive. I want people like me, who have shitty immune systems, to stay alive. My mom has lung cancer. I have scarred lungs from Swine Flu. If you need to put a human face to the tragedy to make it real for you, I’m begging you: please don’t kill my mom. Please don’t kill me.

Most of us are stuck between “this is the perfect time for me to get my shit together” and “this is a time of crisis, so I don’t have to do shit.” As kids today say, big mood. Here’s the thing: you don’t have to create a lasting work of art while in isolation because that’s what Shakespeare did during the plague. What you have to do — for your family as well as yourself — is to take care of yourself.

Mental health matters, perhaps now more than ever. Associate Professor Solveig Merete Klæbo Reitan of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology says there’s a direct link between mental health and immune health: “We know that people with mental disorders are also more susceptible to various inflammations in the body and to immune system disorders. This indicates that an interaction exists.”

“But I don’t have a mental disorder!” Stress may not be a psychiatric illness, but it is a form of disordered thinking. I don’t mean basic stress like, “Oh, shit, I’m stuck in traffic. I’ll be late to my meeting.” That happens to everyone. It’s unsettling, but true stress can be defined as the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable. And, right now, that’s happening to a lot of us, too. This is a frightening thing the likes of which many of us have never faced before. It’s overwhelming, and some of us are having trouble coping. What we need right now are ways to help us cope, and I’ve put together a list of my favorites self-care tips.

self-care during covid-19

1.) Break the cycle: Doing your research is great. Taking precautions is smart. But if you find yourself obsessively refreshing the COVID-19 map, it’s time to ask yourself, “Have I been here today? Is there any reason to revisit this page right now? Is it worth the anxiety it will cause me?” Stopping the thoughts that lead to panic in their tracks is often easier said than done, but give it a try. When you find yourself going down that road, stop, thank your anxiety for trying to protect you, and think of something else.

2.) Be your own best friend: Yes, really. Would you tell your best friend her skin looks like shit? Or point out that she’s too fat to wear those jeans? Of course not! So why are you looking in the mirror and saying it to yourself? Your internal monologue is so important. Just like being insulted by others impacts our self-esteem, insulting ourselves does the same thing. Stop it. Just stop. You are enough just the way you are. If you’re worried about your skin, FaceTime a dermatologist. If your health is suffering because of your weight, then research meal plans you can stick to. Never do anything because society tells you it’s expected of you. Do it for yourself, and support yourself along the way.

3.) Marie Kondo the shit out of your house: A study conducted by Ghent University states there is a connection between materialism and depression, and Rik Pieters of Tilburg University found a direct link between materialism and increasing loneliness over time. When you’re bored and want to feel productive, get in your closet and clear out things you don’t wear anymore. Hanging onto those skinny jeans you’ve had since college in the hope of fitting into them again isn’t helping. If you find yourself back in the same size you wore during college, buy a new pair of jeans to celebrate, and get rid of an old pair to make room. You don’t need a bunch of shit to prove how successful you are. Your happiness is the true measure of success, not the amount of clutter in your home.

4.) Stop kicking your own ass: I’m sure it’s not just me — the first week of this pandemic was like stepping into a time machine. I found myself reviewing every mistake I’ve ever made under a microscope. “Why didn’t I think I was smart enough to go to med school? I could be saving lives right now!” and “I hope my ex knows how incredibly sorry I am; I’d take it back it I could,” and “I hope my idiot ex is having fun in jail; that’s what you get for dealing drugs, scumbag! Why did I even like you?” Stop. Cut it out. Unless the Doctor shows up in the TARDIS and announces that lawlessness briefly applies to time-space, and you can go back in time and change one thing in your past, or you manage to nick the Time Stone from Thanos, what’s done is done. You can’t change it, so stop dwelling on it.

self-care during coronapocalypse

5.) Invest in yourself: Take an online class. Teach yourself to paint — Bob Ross will teach you from the great beyond thanks to his eternal YouTube channel. Learn to play piano. Start baking! (I have several delicious vegan recipes up on my Instagram, and I promise you’ll love them all.) Now is the perfect time to learn something new. Not only will it engage your brain so you have less time for those it’s-the-zombie-apocalypse-for-real thoughts that have been plaguing us all, but you’ll walk away feeling more confident in yourself.

6.) Stop shit-talking yourself: Yeah, okay, I’ll admit it. Looking in the mirror and saying, “I’m awesome!” does feel incredibly silly. But here’s the thing: it works. A 2014 study in the Annual Review of Psychology found that daily affirmations improve your mental health and boost your self-esteem. It doesn’t have to be anything extreme or cheesy. Start small. Just look in the mirror, paraphrase “Desiderata,” and say, “I am a child of the universe, and I have a right to be here.” Or, if you’re the go-big-or-go-home type, sing “Born This Way” at the top of your lungs into your hairbrush. I won’t judge. (And, let’s be real, it totally beats singing “Bye, Corona” to the tune of “My Sharona” or “COVID-19” to the tune of “Come On, Eileen.”)

7.) Laugh your ass off: If you’ve never watched The Golden Girls, here’s your chance. You will laugh. A lot. “Laughter is the best medicine” is a cliché for a reason, and don’t just take my word for it. According to the Journal of Neuroscience, it releases endorphins, a natural mood-booster.

8.) Treat yourself to an at-home spa day: If you’re working from home and don’t need to show your face during a Zoom meeting, slather yourself in your favorite mud mask and coat your hair in coconut oil. Or maybe your boss is super cool and wears a mud mask, too. Have a Shrek party where you’re all painted up green!

self-care during quarantine

9.) Become a beauty guru: All you need is creativity, YouTube tutorials, and makeup. Always wanted to perfect your winged liner? Practice makes perfect, and this is the time to practice. Pull out your favorite red lipstick and slap it on to grab your mail. Is it a major thing? No, not really. It’s not even beneficial to your skin like a mask is, but if playing around with your makeup makes you feel better, then go for it!

10.) Stay active: You don’t need an in-home gym to do this. Do some crunches. Use soup cans as weights. Dance in your living room. Like laughter, exercise releases endorphins, so you’ll feel better in the long run. I’m not promoting it as a cure-all. Exercising won’t cure your depression or fix your love life, but it’s all about achievable goals. You won’t develop a six-pack in a month, but you can start developing the habit of working out that may one day lead to one.

How do you practice self-care? Sound off in the comments. Let’s give each other ideas! Stay safe, stay home, and stop hoarding toilet paper.

Where I’ve Been

So… as you may have noticed, I kind of went MIA for a bit, but it’s with good reason. Not only have I been sick as death, but I also became a new kitten mommy to five kittens rescued from death row! (Please, please, please adopt and don’t shop. You’re saving lives.) Two of these precious babies are my aunt and uncle’s, but the other three darlings are my new kitten children. I love them all so much.

Best. Christmas. Ever.

baby binx

This gorgeous little guy is Thackery Binx. We first met when he took a flying leap into my arms, kissed my nose, and stole my heart. He’s honestly the most affectionate kitten in the world, and he’s such a Mama’s Boy. He loves sleeping in his basket, nose kisses, and eating my mom’s toast.

baby ash

Say hello to Ash Tyler. She (yup, she’s a girl; fans of Star Trek Discovery will totally see the humor in naming a tiny girl kitten Ash Tyler) is the littlest kitten of the group, but she certainly insists upon herself. My tiny girl is feisty but has such a sweet personality. She loves hugs and chin-scratches more than life itself.

binx and logan

Binx with Logan (Howlett, named after Wolverine because my mom is as much of a nerd as I am). Logan is also a little girl, and her hobbies include clawing my arms (yeah, she’s totally a mini-Wolverine), jumping over her siblings like an Olympic athlete, and collapsing her playpens so she can lie on them. (Excuse the mess. They’ve shredded their cardboard house all over the floor, and I paused in the middle of unpacking a box to take this shot while they were semi-still. Photographing hyper kittens is hard, y’all.)

binx frodo simone

Simone, Frodo, and Binx. Simone has the cutest little blotch on the side of her nose, and she has more coloring on her torso than her brother. Simone is the shy one, but she loves to wrestle with her brother. She is also in love with my big boy, Sarek, and follows him everywhere. She’s my aunt’s baby, but I want to kidnap her so badly. Frodo is my uncle’s boy, and he loves play-fighting with Binx, stealing stuffed animals that are bigger than he is, and jumping in my mom’s plate.

simone kitten

A close-up of Simone’s precious little face. She actually didn’t like me at first, which has never happened before. I’ve been warned by friends that their grumpy old cat hates everyone only to wind up with said cat curled up on my lap, so I was heartbroken when little Simone ran away from me each time I tried to pet her. Then I woke up one morning and found her curled up at the foot of my bed, and we’ve been friends ever since.

They all have such distinctive personalities, and I love them beyond words. I also love that Binx looks like a long-haired version of Sarek, Ash resembles Evil, and Logan looks a lot like Teeny. This year has been pretty rough, but now it all feels worth it when I look at these little darlings and think, “You wouldn’t be alive now if we hadn’t taken you in.”

They’re hyper, and they’re definitely a lot of work, but when I think about how much they’ve enriched my life in the short time I’ve known them, I have no regrets. Please consider visiting a shelter and adopting this Christmas, and if you can’t, donations always help. I’ll link a few resources below. I’m not sponsored by any of them; I just think it’s a great cause.

Happy holidays, y’all. I hope you have fun!

Best Friends


Humane Society

LEAH Ancient Winter Album Review


With Ancient Winter, her winter-themed album comprised of original tracks and modern interpretations of medieval hymns, Leah, often dubbed “the metal Enya,” is here to astound you. Imagine freshly fallen snow, the rich scent of pine, hot cinnamon apple cider, and the smoky warmth of a roaring fire, and you’ve barely glimpsed the essence of Ancient Winter.

Fans of metal will be delighted by Leah’s soaring vocals, not to mention the cast of artists joining her on the album, the likes of which include Anna Murphy from Cellar Darling, Troy Donockley from Nightwish, Shir-Ran Yinon from Eluveitie, and more. And non-metal fans will be in for a treat, as Ancient Winter has a decidedly less symphonic feel than Leah’s previous five albums, leaning instead toward Celtic and folk traditions. Leah’s powerful vocals pair equally well with fiddles and harps as they do with electric guitars and synthesizers, proving her to be one of the most versatile artists to date. She uses her voice as an instrument, at once emotional and perfectly controlled.

Ancient Winter is a departure from the norm for Leah — the almost Middle Eastern sound to the album’s first single “Light of the World”  is unlike anything we have ever heard from her before — yet the Celtic roots we know and love form a solid trunk for the album, its more experimental qualities serving as musical branches. She effortlessly dodges the more clichéd, cookie-cutter aspects of Celtic and World music, adding her own, distinctly Leah flair. This feels like a debut into an as-of-yet-discovered genre, one only Leah could breathe into being.

There is an unmistakable duality that weaves its way through the tracks brought to life on Ancient Winter, simple old hymns paired with modern instrumentation, a wintery album that doesn’t feel commercial. A transformative experience, Ancient Winter manages to feel ancient and modern all at once. The tracks found on Ancient Winter would not have sounded remotely out of place in an episode of Game of Thrones or in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But Leah’s work also feels entirely fresh as the temperatures drop and our excitement for the holiday season grows.

And for those who might feel a twinge of confusion at Leah’s departure from her earlier albums, there is nothing more metal than flying in the face of convention. Leah could have stuck to the status quo, as some artists do, creating a discography where one album bleeds into the next. That can create a pleasant, if formulaic, listening experience, but Leah wants us engaged. She wants our hearts to keep time with the drums one moment and for a serene, dreamy feel to overtake us the next. Thanks to her expressive vocals and the unique atmosphere Ancient Winter creates, we can only go along for the ride.

I give Ancient Winter a solid 10/10. Ancient Winter was released on November 15, 2019 by Ex Cathera Records. It can be purchased on Leah’s website, Amazon, and iTunes.

6 Types Of Friends You Don’t Need

six types of friends to avoid

Friendships are vitally important for our happiness; everybody knows that. The exploration of close friendships has been integral to the success of pop culture hits that run the gamut from the obviously-titled Friends to Marvel’s sprawling Avengers franchise. A University of Michigan study found that friends, not family, help you to live a longer, happier life. And this is especially true for women. One study found that over half of the women interviewed valued their relationship with their best friend more than their relationship with their husband.

In school, popularity is defined by how many friends you have. If everybody loves you, then you’re one of the elite few who can claim they’re one of The Cool Kids. As adults, research shows the number of close friendships we actually need might be a lot smaller than our high school days led us to believe.

The aforementioned study found that those who reported maximum happiness had between 4-5 close friendships, with those who had 2-3 coming right behind them on the satisfaction scale. Don’t worry if you only have one close friend. You’re still 50 percent happier than those who report having only acquaintances.

So if we don’t need that many close friends, we can afford to be a little picky about who we let into our inner circle.

First, let’s differentiate the various types of friendships. According to Aristotle, there are really only three types of friendships:

1.) Friendships of utility: These are the people you chat with at work but don’t really know, that one mom you share carpool duties with but aren’t close to, the mechanic who fixes your car without charging you an arm and a leg. These friendships serve a function. They keep the workplace civilized, help to lessen the daily work load, and fuel business transactions.

2.) Friendships of pleasure: This is that guy or girl you like to hook up with when you’re between relationships, your workout partner, or a group of buddies you only really hang out with during football season. You come together for mutual enjoyment, and you share at least one common interest, but you wouldn’t call them at 2 in the morning ugly-crying because you just got mugged. Or possibly need bail money.

3.) Friendships of virtue: The tried and true friends. These are the ones you can call at 2 am for any reason, because they know if you’re calling them at the crack of why-are-you-awake, something is horribly wrong. They’re the ones who know the real story behind why you have a tattoo of Pikachu dancing the Harlem Shake. (I don’t have that tattoo, but wouldn’t it be amazingly bad?)

avoid constant negativity

Now that we have a better understanding of the three main types of friendships, we can delve into the nitty gritty the six types of friends you don’t need to count as one of your close friends. And, more importantly, why.

1.) The Soap Opera Star: You know the type. Everything is always about her. She always has to one-up everyone around her. When you get a new car, she gets a better, more expensive car. When one of your friends gets pregnant, she announces she’s going to have IVF so she stands a higher chance of having twins. When you have a cold, she suddenly has the worst case of the flu, and would you please bring her some chicken soup? And on and on it goes.

Not only is it catty and immature, but it’s given you heartburn and a new gray streak in your hair because the non-stop competition is driving you crazy. If she’s really fun to go clubbing with, knock her down from the inner circle to a friend you see once in a blue moon. Who knows? Maybe she’ll realize her friends are distancing themselves and ask herself why. It’s unlikely because these people tend to be shallow and self-absorbed, but anything is possible. But until that day, keep her at a distance.

avoid gossips

2.) The Gossip Girl: You’re having a bad day. Something truly horrendous is going on, and you have to tell someone. You swear her to secrecy on pain of death, and she promises to never tell a soul. And yet… the next morning, you have 17 texts, 8 voice mails, and 5 messages on Instagram, all asking what the hell happened, and are you okay? Wait, what?! You will never make the mistake of trusting her again. Hopefully.

The good news is that gossips are easy enough to spot in advance. You know the type. “Don’t ever tell her I told you, but Sarah is leaving Steve!” If she’s telling you Sarah’s business, don’t you think she’s going to tell someone yours? Exactly. Cut this one out of your life. Even if she’s fun. Even if she’s “so sweet.” Because she is going to talk about you, and if you don’t give her anything to talk about, she might just make something up.

3.) The Reverse Cheerleader: You have a new job, and you’re super excited. You can’t believe something this amazing has happened to you. All your other friends congratulate you, ask you how you like the job, and are genuinely supportive. What you get from her? A grudging, “Hey, that’s great. I’m happy for you,” and then mutinous silence any time the topic of work comes up. You can feel the resentment pouring off of her in waves. Mention anything wrong in your life, and she’s glad to lend an ear. Mention anything good, and she becomes distant and cold.

This is a huge red flag. Friendship is reciprocal. When times are tough, we meet in a place of genuine empathy and do our best to help each other get through it. When things are going well, we celebrate each other’s successes as if they were our own. Someone who is spiteful and envious is not your friend. It’s okay to think, “Wow, Annie’s career has really taken off. I wish mine was going so well.” But if the thought is more along the lines of, “Why does Annie always get the best breaks? It’s not fair! It should be me!” Then we’ve crossed the line into resentment territory, and this type of person will gladly stab you in the back if it means they get ahead. Especially if it’s instead of you.

avoid disrespectful friends

4.) The Debbie Downer: Nothing is ever good. Nothing. The emphasis is always on the worst aspect of every situation. They had a date and saw a movie, but the popcorn was stale, the soda was flat, and they ran out of gas on the way home. They have a great new job with a corner office, but the windows make it so drafty. Their kid made straight A’s, but can you believe that loser didn’t make the football team? If you bake them a pie, the crust was a little soggy, but, no, don’t worry, it still tasted okay. When you buy them a birthday present, the color isn’t really them, but thanks for the thought! Every single thing is tinged with negativity.

I am 100% against toxic positivity. You know those girls posting “no negative vibes ever” on Instagram who unfollow you because you complained when you broke your leg? The ones who refuse to watch the news because they can’t handle seeing anything distressing? Yeah, refusing to acknowledge a problem only causes it to fester. It isn’t possible to always be a little ray of sunshine. But constant negativity will kill you. This one is tricky, because some people have depression, or they could be going through a divorce or another traumatic event. I don’t subscribe to toxic positivity’s “cancel culture,” which says it’s totally okay to ditch someone for “lowering your frequency.” But you have to remember that, according to science, negativity is contagious. Vaccinate yourself. Take steps to back away from “co-brooding,” where you both sit there bitching about everything, and start to “co-reflect” instead. Understand the problem. See how you can improve it. Then move on to another topic.

5.) The Frosted Flake: They’re going to meet you in a half hour, but they suddenly text saying something came up. It’s okay. It happens. You’ll meet up next week instead, but then something else comes up. They miss your birthday party because they have a work deadline, but you see pictures of them out clubbing all over Facebook. You always go shopping together on Black Friday, but… sorry, she’s going with her mom this year. (Spoiler alert: She’s probably just ditching you again.)

This is the type of friend you can cut out of you inner circle with relative ease simply because… you rarely ever see them anyway. Maybe have a chat with them and let them know you miss spending time with them. Maybe they didn’t realize how much they were ditching you. Or maybe they’ll ghost altogether. You never know. Whether they have a new bestie, a new partner, or you’ve just grown apart, you’ll be much happier when you stop setting yourself up for a sad evening spent on the couch watching Netflix because your plans fell through… again. Take a pottery class and make friends with someone who is dedicated enough to show up every week and get her hands dirty instead of moping over someone who won’t make time for you.

6.) The Asshole: This one should be self-evident, but you would not believe the number of people who are friends with assholes and wonder why they always feel like shit after spending time with their “best friend.” You’re a devout Catholic, and your Atheist friend always jokes about you talking to “Sky Man.” Or maybe you’re an Atheist, and your very Christian friend always tells you she “hopes you’ll accept Jesus into your heart.” Maybe your only goal in life is to be a mother of two, and your friend won’t shut up about how much they loathe children and won’t spend any time around yours. Maybe you don’t want kids, and your friend keeps telling you you’re not really a woman until you have a baby; it’s what you were born to do, and you’ll never know real love until you hold your baby; you’ll change your mind, you know.

I get it! Their beliefs — or lack thereof — are what they find comforting. Their values are what helped them to create a sense of self. They want their friends to experience the same level of joy they feel when they pray or meditate or read Dawkins. They love their children beyond reason and want you to feel the warm, fuzzy feelings they do when they look in on little Timmy sleeping at night. But when they know you have different beliefs and keep trying to help you “see the light,” they’re not actually helping. They’re just being an asshole. Sometimes you can get through to these people, but when they’re fanatical about it and determined to make you see how wrong you are, then they’re being disrespectful of your core beliefs and values. And that is not okay. That’s when it’s time to walk away.

avoid toxic positivity

Breaking up with a friend is never easy. You’ll even miss the flakes and the assholes, but it can be done, and sometimes it’s in your best interest to inventory the people you’ve invited into your heart and evaluate whether or not they’ve earned the right to be there.

Or maybe you were reading this list and said to yourself, “Oh, my God… I’m a Frosted Flake! I have to call Kelsey and apologize!” If you recognize yourself as one of the “toxic” friends and want to improve your friendships, take steps to correct your behaviors.

Confession time: I was the Asshole type. I went through a Militant Atheist Phase™ in college and would aggressively mock anyone who believed in a higher power. Bonus points if I could upset them by pointing out inaccuracies in the Bible. I am so fortunate that I didn’t lose any close friends because of it, but it did cause upset in my family. (I’ve got Irish priests and nuns in the family! Yikes!)

But I grew up. I calmed down. I became more open-minded and less adamant that anyone who disagreed with me was stupid. I’m no longer an Atheist, nor am I a Christian, but I consider myself spiritual. That doesn’t mean I think all Atheists should “see the light.” I don’t want them to. I don’t want anyone to believe in something that doesn’t resonate with them. What I want is for us all to be a little kinder. I want us all to be healthier and happier.

I don’t want someone in my face calling me a dumbass for not being an Atheist any more than I want them attempting to run my life based on their religious beliefs. I didn’t want to deal with assholes, so I stopped being one. And it helped. I am by no means claiming to be a perfect friend, but I care. I make an effort to be supportive and positive. My friends know that if they tell me something in confidence, they won’t be bombarded with texts asking what’s up. They know if I say I’ll be there at 8, barring a major emergency, I’ll be there. I don’t take them for granted, but I’ll never be perfect. No one is. We can only be better than we were.

So take a look at your friends, and then take a look in the mirror. We can improve our lives by removing toxic influences, whether they’re “friends” or internal traits.

Think of it as kind of like The Breakfast Club:

Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it is we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy for making us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basketcase, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.

We can all be a bit of a soap opera star, a gossip girl, a reverse cheerleader, a Debbie downer, a frosted flake, and an asshole. For the most part, don’t hang out with these people. And don’t be one.

Be honest… Have you ever been one of these types of friends? Are you now? Drop me a line in the comments or send a DM on Instagram.