The life of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, known as Joe Exotic, was the subject of a riveting documentary series on Netflix, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Millions of viewers watched the series, with EW reporting that 34 million U.S. viewers watched the show in 10 days. He is an eccentric character who has a distinctive appearance and an interesting background, and people have been wrapped up in his story since it aired.
The show brought to people’s screens a world little-known to most people: big cat breeders and zoo owners. Joe Exotic was a tiger breeder and zoo operator, who once referred to himself as a “gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet.” On June 2, a new special about him is set to air on Investigation Discovery: “The Truth Behind Joe Exotic: The Rick Kirkham Story.”
Here’s what you need to know about Joe Exotic, otherwise known as Joseph Maldonado-Passage:
1. He Was Sentenced to 22 Years in Prison Earlier in 2020 for Animal Abuse & a Murder-for-Hire Plot
Joe Exotic is set to be in prison for a very long time, as he was just sentenced in January 2020 to 22 years in prison. He was arrested in September 2018 and convicted of attempted murder. Prosecutors on the case said he had paid a man $3,000 to kill Carole Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue, and he was set to pay a second hitman, who was in fact an undercover FBI agent.
In addition to the murder-for-hire charge, Joe Exotic was found guilty of nine counts of violating the Endangered Species act for killing five tigers in October 2017. He was also convicted of falsifying wildlife records. If the 56-year-old Joe Exotic is released in 22 years, he will be 78 years old by that time.
In April 2019, he wrote a letter to President Trump asking for a Presidential pardon, Newsweek reported. In that letter, he indicated that he was incarcerated at the Grady County Jail in Oklahoma.
2. He Was a Tiger Breeder & the Owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park
Joe Exotic was the owner of the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. The facility came under fire frequently by animal rights activists for breeding large wild cats as well as allowing visitors to touch those animals.
Newsweek reported that after Joe’s brother died in 1987, he decided to open the Exotic Animal Memorial Park. He started by receiving animals from people who no longer wanted them as pets. He got his first tigers in 2000 and started his breeding program. A video was released of his employees hitting a tiger with their rifle, but the authorities did not take action.
Within a few years of receiving the first two tigers, the Exotic Animal Park was home to over a thousand animals. The park is now under new management and it’s still possible to visit.
3. He Ran for President in 2016 & Governor of Oklahoma in 2018 as a Libertarian
In addition to owning and operating the exotic animal park, Joe Exotic also dabbled in politics. He ran for president in 2016 as an independent candidate, but he was only able to access the ballot in Colorado, where he won 962 votes.
This is one of his campaign videos for the 2016 presidential campaign:
He also ran for governor of Oklahoma as “Joe Exotic,” finishing third out of three for the Libertarian primary with 664 votes.
4. He Has Been Married to Five Different Men
Joe Exotic is openly gay and has been married to five different men. He was first married to Brian Rhyne, who died of HIV complications in 2001. According to NY Mag, his next husband was a man in his 20s from Oklahoma called J.C. Hartpence, who is in prison for murder, which he committed after his split from Joe. Joe Exotic then married John Finlay shortly after Finlay graduated high school, but they split up.
Joe Exotic married Travis Maldonado from California, who died tragically at 23 when he accidentally shot himself at the zoo. According to local news, Joe Exotic posted a video online the next day saying “My husband accidentally got shot and killed yesterday. He would be so mad at me if he didn’t do his show and teach you what you paid to come here and see. So I’m going to try real hard to do this.”
A few months after Travis Maldonado’s death, on December 11, 2017, Joe Exotic married Dillon Passage. One article said that Dillon is a 22-year-old from Texas who, according to Joe, “just texted me out of the blue. It took me a day and half to talk him into dinner and he never left.”
5. He Grew Up on a Farm in Kansas & Became the Police Chief of a Small Town
Joe Exotic was born Joseph Schreibvogel on March 5, 1963 in Kansas. He was the middle child with two brothers and two sisters. He shared that when he was 5 years old, he was repeatedly raped by an older boy.
The family moved from Kansas to Wyoming to Texas when he was 11 years old. He said that when he graduated, he became the police chief of a tiny town of 500 residents called Eastvale, Texas. While struggling to come to terms with his sexuality in 1985, Joe said he attempted suicide by driving his police vehicle at high speed into a concrete wall.
Although the NY Mag article points out that Joe’s family doesn’t remember this crash, Joe has said this moment served as his rebirth.