Everything to Know About Joe Exotic, the Eccentric Zookeeper Chronicled in Netflix's Tiger King
From political campaigns to a country music career, Joseph Maldonado-Passage led a storied life before landing in prison
Tiger King is teeming with fascinating subjects.
With the new seven-part Netflix series, documentarians Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode sink their teeth into the stranger-than-fiction story of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic — a tale that involves big cats, big feuds and even bigger revelations.
Who is the titular “Tiger King,” and where is he now? Here are some key things to know about Joe Exotic.
He is currently in prison.
In April 2019, Maldonado-Passage, 57, was convicted of plotting a murder-for-hire against his nemesis, animal rights activist Carole Baskin. The disgraced zookeeper — who bred and kept tigers, lions and other animals at his G.W. Exotic Animal Memorial Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma — was also charged with other crimes, including killing tigers to make way for more big cats at his park.
He served as his own attorney in a federal trial where a jury found him guilty of two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records, and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.
In January, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison. He currently resides in the Grady County Jail in Oklahoma.
Maldonado-Passage recently filed a lawsuit against various government agencies, as well as a former business partner, seeking $94 million in damages.
His former animal park is still open (barely).
Earlier this month, Tiger King producers told Entertainment Weekly that the zoo Maldonado-Passage used to lord over is still open for business, run by his former business partner Jeff Lowes. Business, however, isn’t booming, they claimed.
“All I can tell you is that [Lowes] is basically operating on fumes,” Goode said. “No one is going now and there’s no source of income, and that’s been going on for a long time. It’s not something that has just happened because of what’s happening in the world today.”
He is an aspiring country singer.
Maldonado-Passage is a man of many passions — including music. The entertainer not only has experience putting on magic shows and animal acts, but he has also recorded more than one country album, with songs like “I Saw a Tiger” and “Here Kitty Kitty.”
Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble: the prevailing theory is that Joe Exotic doesn’t really sing the tracks.
According to Vanity Fair, musicians Vince Johnson and Danny Clinton are actually responsible for some of Joe’s songs, commissioned to make the music for a reality show that never came to fruition. Rick Kirkham, who was hired by Joe to produce that prospective reality series, went so far as to say Joe “couldn’t even hold a tune.”
“It was just so ludicrous,” Kirkham told Vanity Fair. “It was a big joke within the crew and staff that it wasn’t him [singing in the videos] — but he was damned insistent to anyone and everyone, including us and my studio crew, that that was him.”
However, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, the directors Eric Goode said they concluded that he did sing on some of the tracks.
“We were really struggling with what the truth of it was. We went back and forth on it,” Chaiklin said. “With certain songs, it became super confusing. And then our fact-checker told us we were wrong — he was actually singing on certain songs. It was tricky to determine which he was on.”
He had political aspirations.
Maldonado-Passage set his sights on holding America’s highest office, running for president in the 2016 election.
“What’s my chances of winning? Who knows, you know? Pretty slim. But I’m going to give them a run for their money,” he told KFOR at the time.
After the presidential pursuit didn’t pan out, Maldonado-Passage tried for governor of Oklahoma in 2018. Speaking about the issues important to him at the time, he told WFXT that his campaign is about “all the rights for all the people all the time.”
Joe Exotic ultimately lost the Libertarian primary, collecting 18.7 percent of the vote, according to Ballotpedia records.
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He’s had four husbands.
Maldonado-Passage has been married four times, according to New York Magazine. His first husband, Brian Rhyne, died in 2001 of complications from HIV, according to the outlet.
Joe Exotic also tied the knot with John Finlay and Travis Maldonado in a three-way marriage. After a falling-out, Finlay left the park and their union, and Maldonado, 23, died by a self-inflicted gunshot in October 2017.
Two months later, Maldonado-Passage married Dillon Passage. The pair are reportedly still together, if Passage’s Instagram comments are any indication. According to Women’s Health, he responded to one curious commenter that he’s “still married to joe but my social media platform isn’t used for any joe things.”
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is now available to stream on Netflix.