Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (TV Mini-Series) – Season 1 (2020)

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness poster

SHORT VERSION

A rivalry between big cat eccentrics takes a dark turn when Joe Exotic, a controversial animal park boss, is caught in a murder-for-hire plot.

MEDIUM VERSION

The series explores the little-known, deeply interconnected society of big cat conservationists and collectors in America, and the private zoos and sanctuaries they have set up for these unusual and deadly animals. The primary subject is Joe Exotic, the eccentric owner of the G.W. Zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, and his bitter years-long feud with Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. Baskin presents herself as an animal rights activist whose mission is to provide a sanctuary for big cats raised in captivity, but Joe Exotic maintains that she is simply a rival zookeeper whose aim is to eliminate her competition. The two exchange threatening videos, legal allegations, protests, and targeted harassment campaigns, in which PETA and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service become involved. Joe Exotic goes so far as to allege that Baskin murdered her second husband Don Lewis, who has been missing since 1997.

Joe Exotic’s personal life becomes a subject of interest, particularly his unofficial three-way same-sex marriage to Travis Maldonado and John Finlay and his subsequent relationships with them and future husband Dillon Passage. His 2016 run for President of the United States and 2018 run for Governor of Oklahoma are documented with the assistance of his campaign manager, Joshua Dial. Producer Rick Kirkham recounts the rise and fall of “Joe Exotic TV”, a sort of podcast that Kirkham was hoping to develop into a TV series until his footage is mysteriously destroyed. The series then records the events leading up to Joe Exotic’s conviction under federal murder-for-hire statutes when it comes to light that he paid a hitman to murder Baskin; his conviction also includes violations of the Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act, and results in a 22-year federal prison sentence.

Other characters from the exotic animal community are introduced, including Bhagavan Antle, an animal breeder accused of leading a personality cult; Mario Tabraue, a former drug lord who is involved in animal trafficking; Jeff Lowe, a Las Vegas playboy to whom Joe Exotic turns over his zoo for legal reasons; and James Garretson, who became a confidential informant for the federal government and a key figure in making the case against Joe Exotic. Former G.W. Zoo employees such as manager John Reinke and animal wrangler Saff Saffery conclude the series by commenting that the animals themselves were forgotten amongst all the interpersonal fighting, and that no party has truly come out victorious.[

LONG VERSION

The film opens with news footage announcing that the “Tiger King” has been accused of trying to have a woman killed in a murder-for-hire plot after a decades-long feud. It also notes that there are more captive tigers in the US today than living in the wild throughout the world.

Zoo owner Joe Exotic, aka the Tiger King, is described as a “completely insane, gay, gun-toting, drug-addict fanatic” by one of the interviewees. Joe runs a zoo in Oklahoma with over 180 animals (the exact number is different throughout the episode) called the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. He has a weekly internet show professionally produced by a former nationally-renowned reporter named Rick Kirkham. His gift shop if full of branded merchandise, including Tiger King underwear and music albums he’s made (though how much of the singing actually comes from him is debatable).

Joe recounts how his family rejected him when he came out to them and that he tried to commit suicide. Working with big cats helped him recover. He married a man named John Finley soon after John graduated high school. Joe’s rise to prominence began when he founded a roadshow where he performed magic tricks incorporating wild animals in honor of his brother (who died tragically in a car crash). Joe’s actions are opposed by “animal rights activists.” His biggest enemy is a woman named Carole Baskin, the owner of a company called Big Cat Rescue.

Carole’s Big Cat Rescue is a sanctuary devoted to big cats in Tampa, Florida. Virtually everything Carole owns is designed in cat prints. She is an activist who is supported by PETA. Carole says her mission in life is to help end the captivity of wild cats and criticizes Joe (and people like him) for breeding wild cats for profit (whereas her sanctuary is meant to give domestically-raised big cats she rescues a happy life). Carole objects to the lack of regulation for private ownership of big cats. She points to a news story of 50 wild animals being released by a private owner that overran the nearby town as proof of the problem with private ownership. She and her followers have taken numerous steps to shut down the operation of privately-owned big cat centers like Joe’s. Many of Carole’s followers essentially revere her for her work.

Bhagavan Antle also runs a big cat operation in South Carolina. Antle built a preserve for people to have an uncaged experience with wild animals. He is also a mentor to Joe. Both men say the experiences guests have at their centers encourage the visitors to support conservation and education efforts. The documentary shows Shaquille O’Neal visiting Joe’s zoo and Antle on the David Letterman show. Antle also provides exotic animals for Hollywood films like Ace Ventura and Dr. Doolittle.

Antle claims the “animal rights” entities like those run by Carole are motivated to shut down people like he and Joe so they can have a monopoly on the big-money big cat market. Indeed, Carole’s sanctuary is open to the public for paid tours and her big cats are also kept in cages.

The Oklahoma sheriff notes that they are inundated with calls about Joe and his zoo. He calls Joe paranoid and potentially dangerous. Amongst other things, Joe is shown making veiled threats to animal rights activists on his show and is heavily armed (shown on one occasion pretending to shoot activists during target practice). In a news interview, Joe says that any effort to take away his animals would result in another Waco situation. An employee, Joe Reinke, even claims that he and Joe had a suicide pact in place in case something like that ever happened.

Cutting to 2019, Joe is in jail. The episode ends with him claiming he is innocent.

Episode 2 – Cult of Personality:

The episode opens in the aftermath of the mauling of one of Joe’s employees by a tiger. The employee, Kelci “Saff” Saffery, had their arm ripped off after reaching through a tiger cage. Saff’s arm is amputated. Saff returns to the zoo ASAP so that the press won’t use the incident to destroy Joe’s business and the cats they care for. She does not appear to hold the zoo responsible. John Reinke, another employee, lost both his legs. He initially injured them in a horrific ziplining accident. But the constant walking at the zoo exacerbated the condition and he opted to have his legs amputated. He also doesn’t hold the zoo responsible. This episode then examines the cult of personality built around the three main subjects. It also explores animal breeding.

Joe and Antle acknowledge that they breed the animals. Antle has even bred “ligers,” a cross-breed of lions and tigers. It is now illegal to sell/trade endangered species like tigers, but it is heavily implied the pair continue to sell or trade tigers to private owners or other zoos. The pair note that tigers are endangered, so breeding them and creating a marketplace helps the species survive. However, various people accuse Antle of euthanizing his animals once they are no longer marketable. The men also acknowledge (along with another private zoo owner, Tim Stark) that the breeding and sale of big cats is highly lucrative.

Carole is opposed to breeding and selling big cats and notes that the laws are woefully underenforced. She points to the fact that people like Mario Tabraue purchase tigers. Mario was a notorious drug dealer who was sentenced to 100 years in prison and spent 12 years in jail until his conviction was overturned on appeal. Mario acknowledges his past drug dealings as well once helping to dispose of the dead body of an undercover agent. He has a massive menagerie of exotic animals that was amassed using his drug money (and many of which were purchased from Antle). That said, Mario appears to treat his animals with care.

Carole also attacks Joe and Antle for using their big cats to elevate their status and prey on animal-loving people. She says that Joe and Antle abuse their employees as well as their animals.

Antle has an apprentice program where people live on his preserve starting in their teenage years and can stay onboard for decades. They are paid minimally ($100/week) and work almost 24/7. Antle has at least three girlfriends/wives living on his preserve and working for him. In an interview with one of Antle’s former apprentices, she notes that Bhagavan means “lord.” She started working for him as a teenager. She says that the apprentices lived in very poor conditions and the fastest way to advance through the program was to sleep with Antle. He chooses his apprentice’s clothing and also gives them new names. Antle pressured her (and others) into getting implants (which she did in part to earn some rest from the demands of the job). Tim Stark expresses personal admiration for how Antle manages his relations with his female employees.

Meanwhile, Joe has two husbands (the trio got married in a formal ceremony). Not only is John his husband, but so is a man named Travis Maldonado (whom Joe also fell for when Travis was a teenager). Many of Joe’s employees are ex-cons who have few other options for work (and when thrown a lifeline, are allegedly more likely to revere their boss). Joe also pays his employees minimal salaries and they typically live in squalid trailers on the zoo property. Joe buys expired meat from grocery stores that feed both the cats and his employees.

However, they respond that Carole is no different. Carole admits that her workers volunteer for free. She has a regimented hierarchy of volunteers that work over very long hours and over holidays. It takes years of free labor to progress through her hierarchy. Her volunteers have an intense devotion to her, and her social media has millions of devoted followers (who she mobilizes to support her cause and oppose people like Joe and Antle). She receives thousands of dollars per month of revenue through her social media accounts. Carole also produces music videos (but unlike Joe, has not starred in them).

The documentary highlights an incident where Joe hired a helicopter to fly him over Carole’s sanctuary so he could see how she houses the majority of her big cats. His husband John notes that Joe said some scary things prior to doing this, including expressing a desire to drop grenades on her property.

The episode ends with many people accusing Carole of killing her husband (and feeding his corpse to her big cats). She responds that this accusation is merely an unfounded rumor….

Episode 3: The Secret

This episode delves into Carole’s past and the disappearance of Carole’s first husband, Don Lewis.

Carole grew up in mobile homes. She says she was gang-raped at the age of 14 and her fundamentalist Christian family blamed her for the rape. She ran away from home at 15 and lived with her daughter’s father, who was abusive. She escapes this life after she meets Don.

Don was a multi-millionaire. He was also protective of his wealth, as his longtime handyman says he would bury gold bars on his property. Don was 22 years older and married with two kids when he met a 20-year old Carole. She claims the first time they met was while she was walking along the side of the road and he let her hold a gun on him if she’d agree to get into his car (which she did). Don abandoned his family to be with Carole.

Don was an animal collector. The duo started buying cats (primarily bobcats and lynx) at auction, amassing a large amount of cats. Carole claims they were rescuing the cats from being killed at fur farms. The Baskins then began breeding big cats. They bought their first tiger from a motorcycle rider. He has a tape from the ’90s where Carole explains how she takes wild cats from their mothers, acclimates them to human contact, markets them as pets, and defends her right to do so. Carole now alleges Don was the person interested in breeding and selling the cats and that she wanted to abandon that business model. Issues arose in their marriage. Don eventually disappeared soon after he began telling people he was going to divorce Carole and keep all the money and cats.

In addition, the people in the big cat industry, Don’s ex-wife, children, and business associates all believe Carole was involved in his disappearance. Various people think she murdered him, and it’s also rumored that she ground Don’s body up and fed it to her cats. One month before disappearing, Don filed a restraining order against Carole claiming that she was threatening to kill him. The restraining order was denied. Carole’s brother was a deputy in the sheriff’s department at the time of the investigation (although it’s unclear if he was involved in the investigation). Don’s assistant, Anne McQueen, claims that Carole and her family stole Don’s will and power of attorney from her and then produced faked documents that put Carole in charge of his estate. Once Don was declared legally dead, Carole inherited almost everything (Don’s daughters say they only received approximately 10% of his estate). They also claim that Carole threatened to withhold all their inheritance if they continued to talk about her alleged role in Don’s disappearance and death.

The police never found physical evidence to support the theory that Carole killed Don. Carole denies that she threatened Don’s life and says he disappeared on one of his many trips to Costa Rica (although various things in the documentary make this seem unlikely). She also says that he had been in a prior plane crash that caused him to become mentally unstable (thus why he filed the restraining order and wanted a divorce). She denies that she had a close relationship with her brother and says that Don had already disinherited his children (and claims she convinced Don to give them anything at all). Her supporters say that Carole has had to bear a heavy and unfair emotional burden for years due to the spread of rumors that she killed her husband.

Joe has no problem publicly accusing Carole of killing her husband. Indeed, one of Joe’s songs appears to be about Carole’s alleged murder of Don. Rick admits that he encouraged Joe to discuss the rumor (essentially, it makes for good TV). Joe also claims he was sent copies by an anonymous person of Carole’s diaries that discuss her relationship with Don and has publicly aired them.

The episode ends with Joe saying he will take Carole on because everybody else is too scared and that “her day is coming….”

Episode 4 – Playing with Fire:

This episode opens with Joe calling the documentarian from jail and saying he and Carole made money off of each other’s antagonism. It is intercut with scenes of Joe shooting his music video that accuses Carole’s alleged murder of Don (complete with a Carole impersonator). The episode also shows Joe engaging in other acts such as naming a blow-up doll Carole and sticking a dildo in its mouth, shooting the Carole doll with one of his guns, distributing pictures of Carole’s employees posing with dead rabbits, and leading protests outside her refuge. This episode also has the infamous moment where Joe rips a tiger cub away from its mother.

The show explores Joe’s relationship with Rick. When Rick met Joe, he realized that Joe was a “mythical character” and a reality show about him could be worth big money. He agreed to produce Joe’s internet shows if he got permission to concurrently film a reality show about Joe. For his reality show, Rick built a big throne for Joe to sit in as the “Tiger King.” Rick was shopping the reality show to networks when Joe’s production studio burned down and destroyed all of Rick’s footage. It also killed all of Joe’s alligators (boiling them alive) as they were housed in the same building as the studio. The sheriff acknowledges that the fire was caused by arson, but they have never been able to identify the perpetrator.

Joe blames Carole and Rick for the fire. He says they began corresponding and believes Carole essentially paid Rick to destroy his production studio. Carole acknowledges that she emailed Rick, but never offered to pay him to do anything. Rick says he obviously didn’t do it because he lost all of his footage, years of work, in the fire.

The Baskins and Rick suspect that Joe arranged for the fire to be set. Rick said the fire occurred soon after he had a big fight with Joe when Joe learned that Rick owned all the internet shows and reality TV footage. Rick says that he had plenty of incriminating video in his footage, and the sheriff’s office notes that Carole was subpoenaing the footage in lawsuits filed against Joe (discussed below). However, Joe was out of town when the fire occurred. He also lost his production studio and valuable animals in the fire.

Carole filed numerous lawsuits against Joe over the years. She eventually wins a million-dollar judgment against him that has never been paid (Joe says he doesn’t have $1 Million). Carole and her husband note that Joe continuously shifts assets around to other owners, they believe in an attempt to avoid making the owed payments. Joe critiques the Baskins for being unreasonable in their payment demands. They have spent over $1 Million suing Joe and trying to collect on judgments. Amongst other things, they attempted to seize the home of Joe’s elderly parents and would agree to installment payments only if Joe stopped breeding animals or allowing the public to handle them.

As a result of the fire and the judgment, Joe’s zoo teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Many employees believed that Carole’s endgame was to eventually seize control of the zoo from Joe. However, Joe meets a wealthy individual named Jeff Lowe. He is the heir of a circus family and needed a place to keep his exotic pets. Lowe and his wife are swingers who use their cats to find new sexual partners. Lowe paid Joe’s outstanding attorneys’ fees, offered a reward to anyone whose information would put Carole in jail, and negotiated to temporarily take ownership of the zoo.

The episode ends with Jeff Lowe stealing Joe’s zoo.

Episode 5 – Make America Exotic Again:

The episode begins with Joe calling from prison and saying Lowe is a bigger crook than anyone knows. This is intercut with scenes of Lowe and Antle “playing” with their respective animals. Various people (including Antle) say that Lowe took advantage of Joe’s situation with Carole to separate Joe from his zoo.

After Lower purchases the zoo, Joe is maintained as the entertainment director. Reinke claims that Lowe fired and belittled half the staff upon arrival. Lowe brought aboard a handyman/ex-convict named Allen Glover who is described as “very loyal” by Lowe. Amongst other things, Lowe and Joe open a pizza restaurant at the zoo (using some of the expired meat from the Wal-Mart truck).

Joe decides to run for president as an independent in 2016 (his campaign is even covered by John Oliver and other satirical reporters). When the presidential campaign crumbles, he decides to run for governor as a libertarian (despite not knowing what a libertarian was or having any actual interest in politics). Joshua Dial is hired as Joe’s campaign manager. Dial met Joe at Wal-Mart and took the job to fulfill a dream of working in politics. Dial comes up with Joe’s political platform. To support his candidacy, Joe hands out condoms with his face on it (it’s also revealed Joe has a prince albert piercing).

Lowe eventually decides that the political campaign is harming the park and refuses to let the zoo money fund it any further. This frays the relationship between Lowe and Joe. Allen also constantly fought with Joe and claims that Joe was abusive. Lowe eventually tires of Joe’s antics and takes his big cats back to Las Vegas with him (although Lowe still owns the zoo).

Joe loses the election (but gets approximately 19% of the vote). The episode also follows Carole’s efforts to pass federal legislation banning private ownership of big cats. She makes little headway, especially as Antle brings big cats with him to lobby congressmen.

Joe’s marriages also fall apart. Multiple people state that both John and Travis are not gay. Joe is accused of essentially exchanging drugs to his husbands for sex.

John has an affair with one of the female employees at the zoo. He impregnates her and leaves Joe to be with his new family.

Travis has a far darker story. He is described as the “pothead from Hell.” Travis apparently told people Joe forbade him from leaving the zoo. Travis would often point guns at people, thinking it was funny. Travis accidentally commits suicide (in front of Dial) when he puts a gun he thought was unloaded to his head and fires. The gun was actually loaded and Travis is killed. Joe is devastated by the loss and builds a memorial to Travis.

Virtually everyone acknowledges that Joe began having severe mood swings after his losing campaign and the loss of his husbands. He accuses people of trying to have him killed (there is video of a liger chomping on his shoe and dragging Joe by his feet with nobody intervening). Things begin falling apart at the zoo due to Joe’s erratic behavior and loss of interest. Joe soon marries another young man named Dillon Passage (who is clearly impressed by the tigers) two months after Travis’ death.

The episode ends with the federal authorities investigating Joe….

Episode 6 – The Noble Thing to Do:

The episode begins with Joe saying he had to bail Lowe out of jail two times. The first for strangling his wife and the second for sneaking tiger cubs into his hotel room.

Lowe is arrested and sent to jail in Las Vegas for illegally keeping big cats in his home. When he is released from jail, he decides to return to the zoo (which he still owns). He learns that Joe forged his signature in order to use zoo funds to continue financing his political campaigns despite Lowe forbidding this.

We learn that Joe found Carole’s home address and constantly asked people if they could kill Carole. While Joe’s former employees all admit that Joe threatened Carole many times, most think he was just joking. Lowe and his friend, a local businessman named James Garretson, reach out to Carole to give her information about Joe. After receiving their text, Carole contacts federal law enforcement agencies (the “Feds”) and the Feds decide to investigate.

Garretson eventually starts aiding the Feds’ investigation (he says he helps because they threatened to charge him with illegal purchase of a monkey. Others say Garretson is involved in a number of illicit activities that he wanted immunity from). Garretson recounts conversations he had with Joe about hiring someone to murder Carole and furnishes them with texts and emails (although Joe admits some of the conversations occured, he says they were essentially jokes or theoretical).

Eventually, Garretson also gets Lowe involved. They introduce him to an “assassin” with the Feds monitoring the conversations. Although Joe negotiates with the “assassin,” he never actually agrees to pay the assassin to kill Carole. The Feds say that they don’t have enough evidence without Joe taking actual steps to have Carole killed. That’s when Garretson and Lowe tell the Feds that Joe paid Allen to murder Carole. The plot would have Allen drug and kidnap Carole, kill her, and dispose of her body in a swamp.

Allen journeyed to the East Coast (allegedly to kill Carole), but only made it to his home in South Carolina (Carole lives in Florida). Lowe convinces Allen (his loyal friend) to confess that Joe hired him to kill Carole. Allen also gives a phone to the Feds that Joe gave him containing pictures of Carole at it.

While this investigation is ongoing, Lowe decides to kick Joe out of the zoo and apparently tells Joe the Feds are investigating him. Lowe also threatens to kill Joe if he ever returns. Joe burns his paper records and computers. Joe and his employees also ship many of the animals to other zoos in the middle of the night. Joe claims he moved the animals to ensure their safety, Lowe claims he did it to get revenge. Joe then flees the state. He tries to convince people he is in Belize, but in actuality, he moves to Florida.

Joe states that Garretson and Lowe were con-artist buddies who set the whole thing up to get him out of the picture. He says that he never would have relied on Allen to kill Carole. Video footage between Lowe and Joe also shows Joe denying that he tried to have Carole killed.

The Feds decide to indict Joe for trying to have Carole killed. They arrest him in a Florida parking lot.

Carole makes a social media video about Joe’s arrest.

With Joe in jail, Lowe rips apart the zoo and begins building a new one.

The episode ends with Joe in jail…

Episode 7 – Dethroned:

The episode starts with Joe enjoying himself at a carnival intercut with him bemoaning his fate in prison.

During the investigation of the murder-for-hire plot, the Feds also find skulls of tigers that Joe shot and charged him with additional animal-abuse crimes. Joe admits that he shot the tigers, but says that they were old and sick and it was the best means of euthanizing them. As a result of these additional charges, Joe faced up to 80 years in prison.

During the trial, Carole, Garretson, Allen and Joe’s husband John Finlay testified against him. Allen’s testimony appears to be contradicted by recorded phone calls between he and Lowe (although it’s unclear if these calls were presented at trial). The defense does not call John Reinke to testify, who would have testified in Joe’s favor. Lowe never testified (it’s theorized that he would have been forced to implicate himself in Joe’s crimes if he had). Joe surprised everyone and testified on his own behalf.
Joe is found guilty on all charges. Carole and her husband celebrate the verdict.

The series concludes with brief updates of many of the others interviewed in this series. Of note, Lowe acquired a new site for the zoo (still in Oklahoma) and goes into business with big cat breeder Tim Stark. Not long after, Lowe falls out with Garretson (who now says that Lowe was substantively involved in the plot to murder Carole) and Tim (who says that Lowe has not honored his part of the business partnership and is stealing control of the new zoo and Tim’s investments therein). Lowe is unperturbed, saying that he hopes to open even more zoos and that he also hired a “hot nanny” to help he and his wife raise their newborn child.

Joe surprises everyone by reaching out to PETA, an animal rights group. He says he now wants to expose the entire big cat industry for their inhumane practices. He has Dillon (who still appears committed to Joe) hand over numerous records that he secretly maintained to PETA. Amongst other things, Joe claims that Antle inhumanely kills tiger cubs when they are no longer marketable and cremates them in an on-site incinerator. If credible, PETA hopes to use Joe to help bring down the other big cat owners.

The series ends with most individuals saying that there were no winners from these legal battles and that the animals are particularly big losers. None of Joe’s employees work in the big cat industry any longer. Dial no longer has interest in a political career. Rick says he regrets promoting Joe. Almost all of Joe’s former associates think that Joe started with noble intentions, but lost his way as the money and fame grew.

Old footage of a much younger Joe plays where he says that breeding big cats should be illegal and that they belong in their natural habitat. This is intercut with modern footage of Joe gleefully exclaiming that newly-born tiger cubs recently separated from their mother are worth $5,000 each. Joe (from prison) now says he regrets how he treated his animals.
Text prior to the credits informs us that:

Joe is sentenced to 22 years in prison.
No legislation has been passed pertaining to big cat breeding.
Antle’s zoo was raided by the Feds. He has not commented on the claims of euthanasia.
5,000-10,000 tigers live in captivity in the US whereas under 4,000 live in the wild.
Note that Antle, the Baskins, and many others have issued responses to this series since it was released.

NETFLIX INTERVIEW WITH JOE EXOTIC ON MARCH 22, 2020:

Netflix conducted a very short interview with Joe from prison. Netflix asked him four questions:
1) What’s it like seeing the show get so popular? He’d rather experience it outside the prison walls.
2) What’s something you want Tiger King fans to know? He remains ashamed for how he kept his animals in cages.
3) How are things with you and your husband Dillon? They are still married and he is thankful that Dillon is still there for him.
4) What message would you send to fans of the show? He no longer is interested in the “Carole Baskin saga” and is focused solely on being “exonerated” (ostensibly he is working on having his convictions overturned on appeal).

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