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Joe Exotic tried to kill the founder of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa. Now it’s a Netflix documentary

‘Tiger King,’ a limited series, premieres Friday featuring Tampa’s Carole Baskin. Here’s the trailer.
A photo provided by the Santa Rose County Jail in Milton, Fla., shows Joseph Maldonado-Passage, left. The image was used by Netflix for the release of "Tiger King."
A photo provided by the Santa Rose County Jail in Milton, Fla., shows Joseph Maldonado-Passage, left. The image was used by Netflix for the release of "Tiger King." [ Associated Press/Netflix ]
Published Mar. 19, 2020
Updated Mar. 23, 2020

Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, better known as eccentric zookeeper “Joe Exotic," is serving 22 years in prison for his role in a murder-for-hire plot against Carole Baskin, the CEO of Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue.

Now the winding story of the tiger-breeding, country-singing, magician-turned-gubernatorial candidate and would-be reality star is a limited documentary series on Netflix.

“Murder, mayhem and madness" is Netflix’s tagline for Tiger King, which premieres March 20. “A zoo owner spirals out of control amid a cast of eccentric characters in this true murder-for-hire story from the underworld of big cat breeding,” reads the description.

“He was like a mythical character living out in the middle of bumf--- Oklahoma who owned 1,200 lions and tigers and bears and s---," says one interview subject in the trailer.

Baskin told the Tampa Bay Times she participated in the production of Tiger King for five years, with filming at the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary and her home. She said directing partners Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin originally sold her on the idea of a “Blackfish for the big cat world,” referring to the 2013 documentary expose on captive orcas that spurred changes at SeaWorld.

Big Cat Rescue provides a home for exotic cats that have been abandoned, abused or are retired from performing acts. Baskin said “our primary goal is that people learn about the cub petting industry and how it’s causing the extinction of the tiger.”

Baskin hasn’t seen Tiger King yet, but plans to watch. She only recently heard the documentary series was sold to Netflix.

She’s assuming that means the final product will be a more sensational, personality-driven feud story than she’d originally hoped, as she said has been the case with several longform magazine stories as well as the Wondery podcast, Joe Exotic.

“It will be entertaining, though,” she said.

“There was no feud, from my perspective. I’ve only seen the guy four times, all in court,” she said. “But from his side it was very personal. He was reading my diaries online at night.”

Either way, she is hopeful the release of Tiger King at a time when people are stuck at home due to social distancing will draw a huge audience.

“Netflix can reach far more people than we ever could by just going out there with the facts about how abusive it is to be speed-breeding these cubs and snatching them from their mothers,” she said. “Hopefully some percentage of people will look into what they can do to help.”

LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
Founder Carole Baskin walks the property at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa in 2017. Big Cat Rescue is a nonprofit sanctuary committed to humane treatment of rescued animals, often coming from exploitive for-profit operations.
LOREN ELLIOTT | Times Founder Carole Baskin walks the property at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa in 2017. Big Cat Rescue is a nonprofit sanctuary committed to humane treatment of rescued animals, often coming from exploitive for-profit operations. [ Times (2017) ]

In 2017, Maldonado-Passage hired two hit men to have Baskin killed after she’d criticized his treatment of animals. The hitman ran off with the money and never even made it to Florida. The second was an FBI informant. Maldonado-Passage was also convicted of violating federal wildlife laws against wildlife trafficking and abuse.

Big Cat Rescue has produced a cartoon, Baskin said, “to make that difficult-to-understand connection” between breeding and extinction more clear at CubTruth.com.