Spoiler alert! This story contains details from the Netflix docuseries “Tiger King,” now streaming.
Amid social distancing and isolation, Netflix’s new docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” rules.
The seven-episode true-crime series (now streaming) explores the life of Joe Exotic (born Joseph Schreibvogel), a man with an affinity for big cats, blonde mullets, guns and explosives. “Tiger King” examines Joe’s life at Oklahoma’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (referred to as the G.W. Zoo) and his hatred for Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Tampa, Florida. Joe deemed Baskin a threat to his livelihood through her advocacy of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which aims to abolish ownership of big cats as pets and the practice of cub petting.
Although Joe enjoyed his “very emotional connection” with the big cats, he also basked in the showmanship of the gig, which included a web series. “Does it feel good to stand on my stage with 500-pound tigers and (have) everybody envy you? Absolutely,” he says in “Tiger King.”
Joe’s delusional sense of authority is readily apparent. “This is my own little town,” he said of the zoo. “I’m the mayor, the prosecutor, the cop and the executioner.”
“Tiger King” roars with its many shocking moments. Here are a few highlights.
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Accusations about Joe’s husbands
At one point, Joe had two husbands: John Finlay and Travis Maldonado. The three were joined in a union in 2014. Some acquaintances interviewed in the docuseries believe neither of Joe’s grooms were actually gay; Joe admits he “fell in love with straight guys.” So why would they marry Joe? According to some in the series: gifts and drugs.
“I don’t know how much love was involved, but I’m sure it was the cars that he bought John Finlay, the guns he bought John Finlay, the four-wheelers he bought John Finlay,” former zoo manager John Reinke says. “If they wanted it, they got it. All they had to do was ask. I think that’s how (Joe) kept ’em close to him.”
Joe and Finlay admit to using crystal meth, while another says a steady supply of marijuana kept Maldonado around.
“Joe kept (Travis) pumped full of weed to keep him from waking up and realizing this isn’t a life to live,” says Jeff Lowe, whom Joe gave “ownership” of the zoo in an effort to ward off Baskin’s lawsuits. .
But Maldonado became dissatisfied with his life at the park, according to Joe’s gubernatorial campaign manager Joshua Dial, who says Maldonado complained of being a prisoner at the park prevented from seeking a job. Dial saw Maldonado shoot himself in the head in 2017. According to The Associated Press, the authorities ruled the death of the 23-year-old an accident.
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The disappearance of Baskin’s first husband
Baskin was married to Don Lewis, a man who went missing in 1997.
The couple, who met in 1981 when Baskin was 20 and Lewis was 42, opened Wild Life on Easy Street, which offered guests a close-up experience with exotic animals. Joe says she “bred and sold” cats, though Baskin says she wasn’t on board with the breeding her husband did at the time.
Lewis’ family paints Baskin in an unflattering right. His ex-wife Gladys Lewis Cross remembers “the last day that I saw Don, he told me that he was done, that he was divorcing her, that she was one of the worst people he’d ever met in his life, and (that) she was very dangerous.”
Lewis’ daughter, Lynda Sanchez, adds that Lewis was afraid of Baskin. He sought a restraining order against her in June 1997, claiming she’d threatened to kill him. Lewis disappeared two months later. Baskin claims she thought he was on his way to Costa Rica, and says she suspects he might have had Alzheimer’s disease and been confused about his whereabouts.
But others, including Joe Exotic, believe Baskin fed Lewis to her big cats. The case inspired Joe’s song “Here Kitty Kitty.” Baskin denies this claim and speaks out about what she feels are untruths in a post on Big Cat Rescue’s website, where she discredits some interviewed for the docuseries and denies threatening Lewis.
“When he disappeared, I did everything I could to assist the police,” she writes. “I encouraged them to check out the rumors from Costa Rica, and separately I hired a private investigator.”
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An attempted contract killing?
Joe’s malice for Baskin turned to an actual punishable offense when he allegedly hired someone to kill her. He allegedly paid zoo handyman Allen Glover $3,000 to kill Baskin. Glover denies he planned to go through with the plan, while Joe claims the money was a donation so he could leave the zoo.
Joe was arrested in 2018 and found guilty of 19 counts, included attempted murder for hire, killing five tigers and the selling of lion and tiger cubs. In January 2020, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
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