'Tiger King' 's Dillon Passage Says Romance with Joe Exotic Started as 'Companionship'

"It was good to have somebody who I felt could take my loneliness away and bring me out of my depression," Dillon Passage says of getting together with Joseph Maldonado-Passage

Dillon Passage wasn’t looking for marriage when he met Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness subject Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a. Joe Exotic, on a dating app in 2017.

“I never figured I’d marry Joe Exotic,” Passage, 24, tells PEOPLE. “I had no idea who he was. I never Googled him or anything.”

But Joe Exotic, 57, was “very flirty” as he sang karaoke to “This Old Town” on their first date, while Passage says he was “kind of shy at first. After Joe sang, I loosened up a little bit and I was having a really good time.”

Passage had only recently arrived in Oklahoma after leaving Nacogdoches, Texas, where he was studying psychology and criminal justice at Stephen F. Austin State University.

Joe Exotic and Dillon Passage
Dillon Passage and Joseph Maldonado-Passage. Joe Exotic/Instagram

The pair got engaged soon after and were married on Dec. 11, 2017, just two months after Joe Exotic’s previous husband, Travis Maldonado, accidentally shot himself and died.

“Joe had a long conversation with me whenever he proposed. He was like, ‘I need somebody who’s going to be here for me. You may not be in love with me right now, but you will be,’ ” Passage recalls. “I was in a bad place in my life and Joe really was helping me out and getting me healthy. And it was good to have somebody who I felt could take my loneliness away and bring me out of my depression and be there for me no matter what. And Joe made me feel like that.”

Watch The Wild World of Tiger King: Dillon Passage on PeopleTV

Maldonado was also part of that early conversation.

“Joe took Travis’ death very, very hard,” Passage says. “Whenever he met me, he said that he felt like he had a reason to keep going. Everyone around the park was like, ‘You’re making him super happy. He needs you.’ ”

joe exotic and carole baskin
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Passage admits that while he’s “100 percent” in love with his partner now, the marriage grew into that emotion.

“It was like a companionship at first and then I just really saw his true colors and the kind person he was,” he says. “Animals have always been a big deal in my life. When I was little, I’d always bring home any animal I could find. And I could see Joe’s heart that he was very in love and committed to his animals.”

Joe Exotic is currently serving 22 years in prison after being found guilty in April 2019 of two counts of murder for hire and 17 counts of exotic-animal abuse (including killing five tigers). Passage intends to stand by his husband.

RELATED: Tiger King Star Dillon Passage Shares Updates From Joe Exotic: He’s Loved the Feedback!

“I’m not going anywhere,” Passage says. “Joe was there for me in my darkest moments. I’m not going to just abandon him when he needs support more than anything.”

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is streaming now on Netflix. A special aftershow, Tiger King and I, hosted by Joel McHale, arrives on the streaming service on Sunday, April 12.

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