Travelling the country in 1866, the showman P.T. Barnum sparred with the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Having learned of a mauling at a Long Island, New York, zoo in 1933, one woman wrote to her newspaper, “it makes one wonder why these roadside ‘zoos’ are allowed.”
Watching Netflix in 2020, a lot of people are wondering the same thing.
That question and many others rose out of the documentary series “Tiger King,” about Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, the former owner of a roadside zoo in Oklahoma, now in federal prison for, among other things, trying to hire a hit man to kill an animal-rights activist.
Since the series’ release last month, Joe Exotic, 57, has won over a whole new set of allies against a host of his former associates and enemies, most prominently activist Carole Baskin. Some are calling for his release from prison, where he is serving a 22-year sentence.
His story has also given new energy to animal-rights activists, who say the documentary chose to sensationalize feuds and missed an opportunity to expose cruelty at roadside zoos.
If you’ve watched the show, or just heard about it, you probably have more than a few questions. Here are answers to some of them.
So, Joe Exotic is in jail now?
In the final episodes of the show, Joe Exotic’s long-running anger at Carole Baskin, the animal-rights activist, curdles into a plot to do violence against her, drawing the attention of the FBI.
He was convicted last April on two counts of murder-for-hire and a slew of charges around the animals he kept. He was sentenced in January, but maintained his innocence in a Facebook post and appealed to a higher court. His lawyers declined to comment.
He has also filed a lawsuit seeking nearly $ 94 million (U.S.) in damages against the Department of the Interior, a prosecutor and others, court documents show. In the suit, filed March 17, he says the case against him included false and perjured testimony, and that he was the victim of discrimination as “an openly gay male with the largest collection of generic tigers and crossbreeds.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Oklahoma, which prosecuted the criminal case, declined to comment. One defendant named in the lawsuit is Jeff Lowe, who acquired Joe Exotic’s zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, before the two men had a falling out. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
Though Joe Exotic is in a federal prison in Texas, his Facebook page has remained active. In a post last week, he asked for help getting a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to “do the right thing and that is Pardon me or bond me out during my appeal.”
The former zookeeper is also “over the moon” with his new fame, a director of the series, Rebecca Chaiklin, told the Los Angeles Times.
Is the zoo still open?
It was, until this week.
The show’s popularity has hit just as the coronavirus has forced many businesses around the country to shut down.
In a Facebook post Sunday, Lowe said that “the crowds have been huge since the Netflix show and we have difficulty in controlling that much traffic at one time.”
But Tuesday, Sheriff Jim Mullett of Garvin County, Oklahoma, said the zoo had closed in compliance with the governor’s order to shut down non-essential business.
What about Joe’s music?
Clips of music videos featuring Joe Exotic are seen in “Tiger King,” but the music in them was never really his. The songs were recorded by Vince Johnson and Danny Clinton, two musicians from Washington state.
Johnson told Vanity Fair that their Clinton Johnson Band began working with Joe Exotic through an ad: Joe sought a theme song for his zoo and offered potential exposure on a reality TV show, which he said was in production.
Johnson said that his band agreed to write songs according to subjects and themes given by Joe.
“I had no idea he was going to Milli Vanilli the songs,” Johnson told the magazine, referring to the pop duo that took credit for songs they didn’t record, costing them a Grammy Award in 1990. Johnson said that a few months into the collaboration, he discovered Joe Exotic on YouTube, “lip-synching and acting like the ghost of Elvis.”
Eventually, he concluded that he had been “bamboozled” about the reality show, Johnson said. “I just wanted the proper credit.”
He and Clinton are named in the credits of “Tiger King.”
What happened to Carole Baskin’s husband?
The investigation into the 1997 disappearance of Don Lewis, Carole Baskin’s wealthy former husband — one of several mysteries the show dwells upon — never officially closed. Joe Exotic and others suggested Baskin was involved in her husband’s disappearance, an accusation she has denied.
This week, Sheriff Chad Chronister of Hillsborough County, Florida, noting the popularity of the show, asked the public for new leads in Lewis’ disappearance. He told reporters he had assigned a detective supervisor to handle the leads coming in “because of the phenomenon that’s been on Netflix.”
(Chronister watched “Tiger King.” He said the series was “spun” for entertainment but interesting. “Raise your hand if you’re not a Joe Exotic fan, if you’re not rooting for that individual, even knowing that he was a suspect in some of his own dealings,” he said.)
He said that the department was receiving about six calls a day about the case, but so far without any credible leads. “We’ll review a lot of the evidence,” he said. “I can’t even begin to describe how complicated this case was.”
What about Big Cat Rescue?
Big Cat Rescue is a 69-acre non-profit sanctuary in Florida run by Baskin, with whom Joe Exotic had frequently feuded and was accused of trying to kill.
In a blog post after “Tiger King” was released, she disputed several of the “misimpressions people have emailed us about,” such as how many visitors are allowed on the sanctuary property (generally fewer than 20 at a time, she said), the size of the animal enclosures (the smallest was “the size of a small house”) and the salaries of their workers (“in the 30s to 60s”).
All sanctuary income “stays in the non-profit to support its mission,” she wrote.
Baskin said it was good that “the series appears to have reached an audience that had no clue about roadside zoos,” which are sometimes unlicensed, but she condemned how the filmmakers characterized the disappearance of Lewis.
Kate Dylewsky, an animal-welfare activist and the senior policy adviser for the Animal Welfare Institute, said she has worked with Baskin for years trying to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would outlaw the new ownership of big cats like lions and tigers. She said Baskin has a sterling reputation among animal-welfare activists, many of whom have gone on social media to decry how she was portrayed in the documentary.
“The documentary had so many false equivalences between her and the roadside zoo owners,” Dylewsky said. “People are really appalled with the way she has been treated lately.”
In the blog post, Baskin said they participated in the making of the Netflix series because the directors had said they would expose abuses at roadside zoos.
“The series not only does not do any of that, but has had the sole goal of being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers,” Baskin wrote. She said that it drew on “lies and innuendos from people who are not credible” in its presentation of her husband’s disappearance.
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What about the others?
Bhagavan Antle, another licensed wildlife owner featured in the series, called it “sensationalized entertainment.” In a Facebook post last week, he said his Myrtle Beach Safari “adheres to all USDA guidelines, and our animals are treated with the utmost care.” He said that his staff was “very disappointed that our facility was mentioned.”
Agents with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division served search warrants at Myrtle Beach Safari in December, but a spokesman for the agency, Tommy Crosby, said Wednesday that it was not investigating the facility.
“The search warrants executed back in December were in support of an investigation being conducted by authorities from Virginia,” he said.
In December, Antle told local WMBF News that the investigation pertained to a Virginia zoo and the history of three lion cubs he obtained last summer.
“They wanted us to try to help them look at the trail as to where the lions had come from and any evidence of clues as to what the lions’ lives had been like before they moved here,” he said. “Myrtle Beach Safari isn’t at fault for anything.”
Virginia State Police and Myrtle Beach Safari did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
John Finlay, who was in a long relationship with Joe Exotic, testified against him during the federal trial.
He has set up a Facebook page, “The Truth About John Finlay,” and given interviews about his experiences at the zoo and during filming. (He said that he had dental work done in the summer of 2019, for instance, but the series’ producers did not show his fixed teeth.)
He told actor David Spade that he and Joe Exotic were never legally married and that he “is completely out of my life.” Finlay now has a fiancée and said of reaction to the series, “I’ve had a lot of more positive out of it than I’ve had negative.”
Cameo, a service that allows fans to pay low- to mid-range celebrities to send them video messages, said that Lowe had joined and was available for personalized videos.
What, if anything, about keeping tigers is legal?
Some states outright ban the private ownership of big cats by anyone who is not federally licensed to keep them, while other states have looser restrictions or none at all. Animal-rights groups say this patchwork of regulations fails to protect wild animals and threatens public safety.
Often, people with little to no zookeeping experience buy lion or tiger cubs that become difficult to manage as they grow. Animal-welfare advocates often point to the 2011 case of an Ohio man who released dozens of animals he had been keeping, including Bengal tigers, grizzly bears and lions. The police killed the animals, some of which got as far as a state highway.
Roadside zoos are problematic because they breed big cats for profit, said Dylewsky of the Animal Welfare Institute.
The cubs are taken from their mothers, often at birth, and paraded before tourists for petting, she said. Many of them are abused by their handlers, Dylewsky said.
“These cubs are wild animals,” she added. “They’re treated like props and objects instead of like animals.”
And when they get older, they can become a burden to their owners, said Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an accrediting organization.
“They’re then pawned off to somewhere where they receive no or inadequate care,” he said.
Owners of animals that are exhibited to the public must be licensed under the Animal Welfare Act, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Licensed owners must make sure animals have adequate housing, sanitation, nutrition, water and veterinary care, and are protected from extreme temperatures.
But exhibitors are still able to breed, transfer cats across state lines and allow the public to stroke tiger cubs and pose with lions, the kind of contact shown in “Tiger King,” Ashe said.
The Big Cat Public Safety Act would make all that illegal and outlaw new ownership of big cats like tigers, lions, cheetahs or any hybrid of such species.
Only accredited zoos and facilities would be allowed to breed big cats under the law, said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., who introduced the most recent version of the bill. Quigley said the bill has more than 220 sponsors and was passed last fall by the House Natural Committee on Natural Resources.
“Bottom line, this is about animal welfare and public safety,” he said. “If a documentary shines any light on this and puts any oomph on getting this passed, then great.”