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Who is Joe Exotic?

The true story of the "Tiger King" told in the latest Netflix docu-series

Who is Joe Exotic? The true story of the Tiger King told in the latest Netflix docu-series

Oxygenated hair, mullet, piercings, a poisonous tongue, country-kitsch outfits that look stolen from Lil Nas X's wardrobe and a disproportionate amount of synthetic drugs and firearms. This is in short the appearance of Joe Exotic, owner of one of America's most famous and controversial private zoos, and protagonist of the latest Netflix docu-series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness – a series that has made the world discover a trash icon that until a few days ago it was famous only on the pages of American tabloids. And Joe Exotic's has been a life full of scandals, absurdities and extreme situations. A journey that ended in 2018, when Tiger King was found guilty of two attempted murders, eight counts of illegal sale of endangered animals, and nine counts of abuse of endangered species. All crimes for which the 57-year-old is serving 22 years in prison. Not everyone thinks he's guilty: the most recent supporter he's earned is Cardi B, who even launched a GoFundMe to help him get out of jail.  

This man's story really looks like a novel. The son of German immigrants in Kansas, Joe grew up surrounded by animals with two brothers and two sisters. It was a family in which discipline and duty had a greater weight than affection – which prompted Joe to pour his love into the care of animals from a very young age. The problems began immediately: at the age of five Joe was the victim of repeated rapes in his own home. His family moved from one state to another, causing many social problems to the future Tiger King who at one point became bullied for his homosexuality. The bullies had to revise their strategies, because young Joe, in revenge, spread over the school parking with a lot of nails blowing up the tires of a hundred cars – a story that the direct interested often repeats but which was never confirmed by the school or former classmates.

After high school, Joe was briefly a police officer in the Texas town of Eastvale. Following a car accident whose dynamics remain shrouded in mystery (according to Joe it was an attempted suicide, according to his then-boyfriend a trivial buffer), he moved to Florida where he lived for two years and first came into contact with lion cubs. Joe then returned to Texas where he began working in the security of a cowboy-themed gay bar where he met 19-year-old Brian Rhyne who later became his husband. The two moved to Arlington, spending their afternoons in an RV smoking pink-tinted crystal meth not far from the Pet Safari store, which Joe and his brother bought and operated together for a few years. That all changed in 1997 when Joe's brother died in a truck accident – a traumatic event for which the transportation company paid a fine that became the capital with which Joe bought sixteen acres of land in Oklahoma that became his famous private zoo: Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park

The first two tigers were purchased in 2000, to feed them Joe took down the horses given to him by local breeders and left the carcasses all whole inside the cages. The following year, Joe's first husband died of AIDS. Starting with the death of his first love, a ten-year relationship, Joe Exotic's character as we know him began to take shape. His first husband was followed by four others: J.C. Hartpence John Finlay, Travis Maldonado and Dillon Passage. Things ended badly between him and 24-year-old Hartpence, amid death threats and pointed guns. The two separated and a few years later Hartpence ended up in prison for life for murder. Finlay and Maldonado were married to Joe in the same ceremony, in a bizarre three-way wedding in which all the newlyweds wore cowboy outfits with pink shirts. Meanwhile, the zoo housed over a thousand animals, including ninety large felines, in horrible hygienic conditions. And that's when the story starts to get really surreal.

Joe became famous, receiving visits and sponsorships from a star like Shaquille O'Neal and organizing magic shows in large American malls that included tiger cubs and other animals. A business on the edge of legality crowned by a completely bizarre episode: missing a tiger for a show, Joe decided to paint a sheep of orange and black and make it pass as a tiger in front of the audience. Of course no one believed him. Meanwhile, Joe had drawn the ire of activist Carol Baskin, owner of one of America's leading animal sanctuaries, who launched a campaign of sabotage against Joe. In revenge, he organized other shows by pretending to work for Baskin and infringing his copyright. The lawsuit led Joe to fork out a million dollars in damages, declare bankruptcy, and sell the zoo to Jeff Lowe, another offender, who allowed him to continue his work. In 2015, Joe tried to run for president of the United States, obviously failing, and in 2018 he always ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Oklahoma. In the same year, Joe tried to recruit a hitman to kill the enemy who was ruining his business, but unknowingly contacted an undercover FBI agent who arrested him.

There are other shadows in Joe Exotic's life. During his feud with Carol Baskin, a journalist, Rick Kirkham, started recording his activities an unrealized reality show called Joe Exotic: Tiger King. Kirkham took up everything that happened in the zoo - including illegal activities. It was a suspicious event, therefore, the fire that in 2015 razed his studio, turning to ashes all the potentially incriminating video material. Six months later, the journalist's house also went up in flames, this time incinering his dog. According to Kirkham, Joe was responsible for both fires: he would have paied someone to set them up because he knew that evidence of his various crimes was hidden in the footage. In 2017, Exotic's new husband, Travis Maldonado, in an attempt to prove that a magazine-free gun was not dangerous, forgot a bullet in the barrel and shot himself in one of the zoo's offices. This is Joe Exotic's version, but other rumors don't rule out suicide. Maldonado's death occurred on October 6. On December 11 of that year, Joe married his current husband, Dillon Passage.

These are just a few episodes of a character's life beyond any rule, of which the Netlfix docu-series makes a surreal and disturbing picture.  It must be said, however, that Tiger King is not the only villain in the story: all the characters interviewed by Eric Goode during the eight episodes of the docu-series, from the manipulator Bhagavan "Doc" Antle to the possible uxoricide Carol Baskin, are greedy and ruthless creatures, exploiters from the first to the last of both animals and people, and it is immediately clear that they are the true predators, more brutal than any lion. It is impossible, however, not to feel pity for the real victims of the whole affair: the animals trapped in those cages, exhibited as expensive toys, treated in the same way as things and in some cases even killed with a merciless bullet in the middle of the Eyes.