Tiger King


Leslie Chen, Writer

If you are stuck at home and have nothing to watch, Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayham, and Madness may be the perfect series for you to binge. The documentary, rated for mature audiences, has caught the internet by storm. Over seven episodes, directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin chart the course of zoo owner Joe Exotic’s life and introduce viewers to eccentric figures in the big cat world.


Joseph Maldonado Passage, better known by his stage name “Joe Exotic”, is a tiger breeder at the center of the series. As a self-proclaimed “gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet,” he operated a big cat zoo called the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park, named after his dead brother who also shared his love for animals. Known as the G.W. Zoo, the park became populated by a growing number of exotic animals including tigers, alligators, and lions. As the zoo grew in popularity, Exotic expanded his franchise by going on nationwide tours with his animals and continuously breeding them to keep a constant supply of cubs.


With all this attention, Exotic quickly began to become a target for animal rights conservationists, who accused him of animal abuse. One of his biggest rivals was Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue. Baskin made it her biggest mission to end private big-cat ownership and the G.W. Zoo, as well as “giving animals a place to live for the rest of their lives in peace.”


Exotic and Baskin’s feud is one of the main plot points of the documentary series, as both sides continued to accuse each other of committing terrible crimes. Arguably one of the biggest controversies of the show, Exotic accused Baskin of allegedly killing her then-husband, Don Lewis, and feeding him to the tigers. Baskin has since denied these claims, saying the “show had a segment dedicated to suggesting, with lies and innuendos from people who are not credible, that I had a role in the disappearance of my husband Don 21 years ago”, and that the series “presents this without any regard for the truth.” 


The documentary series continues on to follow Exotic’s life, especially his downfall in 2015. With his events like his husband’s suicide, as well as a bankruptcy from Baskin’s lawsuit, Exotic turned over ownership of G.W. Zoo to Jeff Lowe, a big cat owner with a criminal record, including accusations of domestic violence. Although he no longer owned the zoo, Exotic tried to turn his life towards politics, but he ran unsuccessful campaigns for president in 2015 and governor of Oklahoma in 2018.


As Exotic struggled to deal with grief and anxiety, he remained consumed with his hatred for Baskin. In 2017, he unsuccessfully attempted to have Baskin killed, but was arrested and was found guilty on 21 counts, including abusing his own tigers.


Exotic is currently held in Grady County Jail, as he was sentenced for 22 years in January. He appears to believe that Tiger King will vindicate him in some way; on a Facebook post, Exotic said, “Now that the Netflix series is out, I can not watch it, but if you see … the people who set me up … please share this with a law firm that may help me get out of here.”


Baskin, who continues to run Big Cat Rescue, has since slammed the show for not focusing on big cat exploitation, but on her late husband’s alleged murder instead. “The series presents this without any regard for the truth or in most cases even giving me an opportunity before publication to rebut the absurd claims,” she wrote. “They did not care about the truth. The unsavory lies are better for getting viewers.”


Tiger King is now available on Netflix for on-demand streaming.