As Americans sit cooped up and caged in their homes, unable to go much further than the grocery store for fear of an invisible predator, the Tiger King has become something of a folk hero, an avatar for animalistic urges with no other relief in sight. Thanks to the Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness about his life and downfall, Joe Exotic, the gay, gun-toting, hillbilly zoo-owner with the bleach blond mullet, is the internet’s latest mascot, his twisted charm and foul-mouthed, off-the-wall antics winning him fans nationwide.
That Joe Exotic—whose real name is now Joe Passage—sits in federal prison on murder-for-hire and animal cruelty charges has only ratcheted up the fervor and fandom. The show has already been watched by well over 34 million viewers at the most conservative estimates, and cruise Twitter or Instagram for even a moment, and you’re likely to find the #FreeJoeExotic hashtag. Journalist Rob Moor understands the man’s perverse appeal, but if you knew Joe Exotic like Moor Rob knows Joe Exotic, you wouldn’t think he was innocent or anywhere near a good person. You might, however, feel some real empathy for the guy.
Moor spent nearly five years tracking and reporting on a story that only got more bizarre with every twist and turn, as millions of people have now discovered. Joe Exotic, who spent over a decade running a wild private zoo, breeding large cats and touring the country with tiger kitten petting shows, was convicted last April of hiring a hitman to kill Carole Baskin, a big cat conservationist with whom he engaged in a years-long feud. Moor’s half-decade of work on the Joe Exotic saga became a massive feature story for New York magazine and a podcast miniseries for the Wondery network, both of which paint something of a different picture than the Netflix doc.
“One of the issues I’m dealing with right now is that people seem to have come away from seeing the documentary thinking that Joe is innocent and that Carole is the devil. The reality is much more complicated than that,” Moor tells Observer, suggesting that Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin’s series wound up learning toward Joe Exotic’s side of the story. “I’m also struggling with a sense that everyone does not seem to really be grasping the fact that this is real and that these are real people and it’s not a reality show. These are real people you’re discussing.”
The tragic early years
In seven episodes, the Netflix doc covers a lot of ground, making use of what seemed to be unlimited access to what was then Joe Exotic’s ramshackle, roadside zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. But it glosses over the early chapters of his life, when he was known as Joe Schreibvogel. Raped repeatedly as a child, treated like an outcast as a teenager and living on the edge of poverty as a gay man in the south in the 1980s, Joe was set up for a difficult life. But he found love, marrying a man named Brian Rhyne long before that was legal.
“The people who knew Joe in the ‘90s tended to say that he was a really sweet guy and he was a genuine lover of animals,” Moor says. “He owned a pet store and then he opened the zoo and was genuinely dedicated to only taking in rescued animals. He did not want to breed them, didn’t want to buy them, didn’t want to sell them. He just wanted to rescue animals.”
Joe and Brian started the little zoo together and named it after Joe’s late brother. Moor’s story describes the turn of the millennium as something of an idyllic time, filled with baby tigers and a growing business. Then Rhyne contracted HIV and died in 2001, a tragic loss that ultimately became a turning point in Joe’s life.
“The death of his husband Brian was really formative,” Moor says. “People told me that that’s when Joe Schreibvogel started to disappear and Joe Exotic started started to emerge, and by the end of 2015 or so there was no Joe Schreibvogel left—it was all Joe Exotic, and that’s really that’s really disturbing. The mask ate into his face and he just became all surface.”
A cruel king
The mask was—and still is—a convincing one, giving Joe the look of an underdog fighting for big cats who had nowhere else to go. Moor found himself taken in by the story when they first met, appreciating his bombastic style and devotion to animals. He told Moor that he “kept all the retards,” which was Joe’s crass way of saying that he’d take in any animal, no matter how old, damaged or ugly.
That promise would have differentiated him from many other for-profit zoos, even the big ones. Even if you weren’t into the wild mullet, the gun on his hip, or the outlandish things he said, Joe Exotic’s compassion for the animals he kept at his GW Zoo and brought with him on the road to meet young children at mall shows across the country was a compelling selling point. Until it turned out to be a lie.
The Netflix documentary provides plenty of evidence that the GW Zoo was breeding tigers and other animals, and their natural instincts as predators is on display throughout the seven-episode run. But the truth of what went on behind the scenes was far bleaker than what the series could fit in. These were the moments that Joe, who had his every move filmed by an employee, didn’t record for posterity.
Joe was a prolific tiger and lion breeder, which he needed to be to support his tiger cub-petting business. And just as he bred animals, he killed them, as well. Moor’s podcast includes anecdotes about a steed named Miracle the Wonder Horse, which Joe secretly put down with a bullet, as well as the abuse and murder of many other animals.
“According to people who I talked to, he was killing animals in 2014,” Moor says, with the understanding that the killing likely happened long before then as well. “He was killing tigers to make room in cages. He was starving cats to death so he could feed them to snakes.”
The humans at the zoo fared little better.
The Netflix doc spends a significant amount of time with Rick Kirkham, a TV journalist and reality TV producer who took one look at Joe and his crew and saw Duck Dynasty with fangs, a potential money-printing hit. The documentary outlines some of the terrors he wound up experiencing in Kirkham’s time living in a trailer at the zoo, including the obvious arson on zoo grounds that destroyed his entire year of footage. As Moor’s podcast notes, Joe’s reign of terror likely followed Kirkham back to his home in Texas, which mysteriously burned down soon after he returned.
Kirkham, a former crack addict, wound up checking himself into a mental health clinic and fleeing to Norway. Moor visited him in the country, where Kirkham has become something of a local TV news celebrity.
Many of Joe’s other employees, however, seemed to stick with him through thick and thin, even as they made sub-minimum wage and took to eating the expired meat from Walmart that Joe was feeding to the animals, memorably shown in the Netflix doc. This was partly by design—Joe hired mostly ex-convicts, addicts and recent prison parolees who had nowhere else to go, no alternatives to the miserable life they experienced in the zoo, which locked its doors every evening.
Still, there were opportunities to flee, like when Saff Saffery, an employee who handled animals, got his arm mauled below the elbow by an ornery big cat. (It’s worth noting that Saff was misgendered in the Netflix doc and uses he/him pronouns.) Instead of making a big deal of it or going through a lengthy rehab, Saff decided to have the arm amputated so as to not draw attention to an ongoing struggle. Was that out of loyalty to Joe, the person ultimately responsible for the incident?
“What Saff would say is that ‘I had loyalty to the animals. I wasn’t there for Joe, I was there for those animals,’” Moor explains. “They all were there because they had this intense love of exotic animals. There’s a real power, an almost narcotic power to being around a tiger, getting to pet a full-grown tiger, being in the cage with it. It makes people feel alive in a way that they don’t in other ways in their lives and so they get hooked on it. That’s something Joe sold people on: you’re doing a good thing you’re helping these abused abandoned animals.”
The music scam
One of the most bizarre elements in a story filled with bewildering subplots is Joe’s music career. Scattered throughout the Netflix doc are a number of different country music videos featuring Joe crooning about tigers and his enemies while strutting and shooting guns across the zoo’s open terrain. It’s hard to believe that a guy with Joe’s strained and squeaky Southern accent to belt out ballads in silky, sonorous tones.
It didn’t take long for people to figure out that it wasn’t Joe singing those songs, but how he kept the music coming is a bit of an untold story.
Moor was tipped off by someone familiar with Joe that the songs were actually created and performed by a songwriting duo called the Clinton Johnson Band. When he called up Vince Johnson, one of the two musical principals, Johnson at first declined to divulge any information about the partnership with Joe. Six months later, however, Johnson had a change of heart… because yes, Joe had apparently ripped him off, too.
The relationship began with Joe contacting Vince Johnson and his partner Danny Clinton, asking them to write a theme song for his prospective TV show. They provided the track as requested but were caught off-guard when they discovered that not only did Joe make a music video for it, but he also softly sang above the main vocal track so that he could credit himself as the artist. That led to an initial confrontation that became a partnership for a time, with Clinton and Johnson agreeing to serve as the studio performers to Joe Exotic’s Milli Vanilli.
Ultimately, though, Joe just simply wound up stealing one of their songs and stiffing them on payment, pissing off yet another ally and exposing himself yet again as a con man who sang a very false tune.
Joe himself has expressed elation with the Netflix doc, including in videos released on Twitter by Netflix this past week. How could he not be excited? The entire country has been watching him, talking about him, creating memes about him and repeating his side of the story, proclaiming his innocence.
On the other hand, Carole Baskin has become a pariah of sorts, portrayed as a woman obsessed with taking down the poor, eccentric, animal-loving showman. Florida police, meanwhile, are now taking in “tips” on a daily basis about the death of her first husband. While the man’s disappearance has never been solved, there’s also never been solid enough evidence to link her to his demise, but it’s that doubt that gives people the ability to cast her as a villain.
Where have we seen that dynamic before? Plenty of people have compared Joe Exotic to Donald Trump, a pair of brash con men who say such absurd things that it’s hard to believe that they are indeed lying. As Moor puts it: “The radical honesty is a veil for radical dishonesty.” And in the same way, Moor sees Carole as the other side of the coin, taken down in public opinion despite better intentions and more preparation.
“There is a very clear parallel to be drawn between Joe and Trump and Carole and Hillary Clinton,” Moor says. “They have similar ways of communicating and presenting themselves. Carole, she’s so calculating, she has this affect where she’s so desperate to be liked, but it makes you come away from her and be very suspicious of her. She has more money, more organization, and her whole thing feels more professional. And people are suspicious of that, too.”
Wanting to be liked isn’t a crime—it’s what drove Joe all these years, after all—but being responsible, boring, and wanting to rein in a party animal’s free-wheeling fun is enough to earn someone scorn, especially while the rest of us are locked up in our homes.
“I think it’s tapping into a lot of subterranean political urges and anxieties that people don’t totally recognize,” Moor says, “but it’s just punctured some kind of blister in the American psyche.”
The news keeps on coming, a perfect American story unfurling like so many scandals and tabloid oddities before it. Joe Exotic is enjoying his fame, Netflix is tweeting about the special and a “sequel” documentary from Investigation Discovery has been greenlit: Investigating the Strange World of Joe Exotic. Even Donald Trump himself weighed in when asked about the case. But the law is still coming down against the Tiger King; this week, two courts tossed out parts of his $89 million lawsuit over his alleged false arrest.