Inside Tiger King Joe Exotic's Obsession with Carole Baskin: 'It's the Worst Kind of Love Story'

"Carole was the first thing on his mind every morning and the last thing on his mind every night," Joe Exotic's former staffer Kelci "Saff" Saffery tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story

For anyone who’s watched Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, one thing is abundantly clear: Joseph Maldonado-Passage‘s fixation with Carole Baskin ran deep. And its culmination — Maldonado-Passage serving 22 years in prison after being found guilty in 2019 for paying a man $3,000 to kill the Big Cat Rescue founder — may have been a long time coming.

“Carole was the first thing on his mind every morning and the last thing on his mind every night,” Kelci “Saff” Saffery tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story of his former employer, Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a. Joe Exotic.

Like Saffery, those around Maldonado-Passage and his zoo, the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, grew increasingly concerned about his feud with Baskin, which included posting threatening videos and creating a company that mimicked Big Cat Rescue’s name and logo (for which Maldonado-Passage lost a million-dollar trademark lawsuit in 2011), from an early stage.

“When I first met Joe, he was all about the animals, and he was one of the most kindhearted, lovable, smartest guys in the industry,” says Maldonado-Passage’s friend Tim Stark, a former zoo owner. “When he started doing battle with Carole, I told him he was going to get his ass kicked. He just kept going on. He didn’t listen.”

“Joe wanted to be the big cat and he wanted to show Carole Baskin,” Stark adds.

joe exotic and carole baskin
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“Joe had a really bad hatred towards Carole Baskin and a lot of us knew it was going to head in a bad direction,” John Finlay says of his ex-husband and former employer at the zoo. “A lot of people told him he needs to stop or slow down and think about what’s going on.”

Carole Baskin
Carole Baskin. Carole Baskin/Facebook

When Maldonado-Passage, 57, found himself swimming in debt after the trademark lawsuit, his hatred of Baskin took a dark turn. “Joe lost all concept of reality,” Stark says. “From that point forward, Joe’s life was controlled by desperation to do whatever he could to protect the zoo — anything and everything.”

And a few years later, when Maldonado-Passage ran for President of the United States in 2015, things became clear to zoo staff, Finlay says, that he had “started losing sight of what really mattered: the animals.”

Saffery mirrors that sentiment, saying both Maldonado-Passage and Baskin began their feud as animal lovers “standing up for what they believed was right. “But it started to not be about the animals. I don’t think that it was only about egos, but I do think they started to focus more on Carole and Joe and less on the bigger picture. And nothing came out of it. It’s the worst kind of love story.”

joe exotic
Joe Exotic. Netflix

From jail, Maldonado-Passage recently filed a lawsuit against various government agencies, as well as former business partner Jeff Lowe, seeking $94 million in damages. And he told Netflix on March 22 (and posted April 3) that he is ready to put his rivalry with Baskin in his rearview.

“I’m done with the Carole Baskin saga,” he said. “It’s now time to turn the tables and Joe get out of jail a free man and exonerated from all these charges.”

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is streaming now on Netflix.

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