Joseph Maldonado-Passage fashioned himself into a character that seemed too ridiculous to be real.
Going by “Joe Exotic,” Maldonado-Passage bred dozens of tigers and ligers at his roadside zoo. He chopped his hair into a bleach-blonde mullet and surrounded himself with a reality TV camera crew. When he ran for Oklahoma governor in 2018, his campaign signs read, “Joe F--king Exotic.”
But behind the flashy theatrics of “Joe Exotic” was something more sinister. Animal rights activists accused Maldonado-Passage of abusing the creatures he claimed to love. One of his most vocal critics was Carole Baskin, founder of Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue.
In 2017, Maldonado-Passage hired two hit men to have Baskin killed. The first ran off with the money and never even made it to Florida. The second was an FBI informant.
Baskin survived. Maldonado-Passage was arrested in Florida. In April a federal jury convicted him of two counts of hiring a person to commit murder and 17 other charges such as wildlife trafficking, animal abuse and killing five tigers.
But the story didn’t stop there. A new podcast from Wondery documents nearly every twist and turn of their many battles.
“Joe Exotic” is the second season of the podcast network’s “Over My Dead Body” series. Freelance journalist Robert Moor interviewed roughly 70 people and published a 10,000-word feature on “Joe Exotic” in New York Magazine earlier this month. His six-part podcast goes even deeper into the worlds of Maldonado-Passage and Baskin. Listeners learn how each rose to prominence — and how Maldonado-Passage’s rage turned murderous.
“The more you dig into the details, you’re like, ‘This is the “strangest, most fascinating story I’ve ever seen,’” Moor said.
His reporting started about five years ago. He stumbled across an article about Michael Jackson’s pet alligators burning alive in a mysterious fire at Maldonado-Passage’s animal park. Soon after that, he flew to Oklahoma to spend a week with Maldonado-Passage — then known as Joe Shreibvogel — at the zoo.
Moor was mystified by the shenanigans he found there. Take what he found at the zoo’s gift shop alone: “Joe Exotic”’s face was plastered on nearly every item of merchandise, from clothing to condoms. He starred in homemade country music videos that blared from TVs mounted to the wall. Employees wore T-shirts that read, “Ask to meet the Tiger King."
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“It was truly surreal,” Moor said.
During that first visit, Maldonado-Passage ranted about his fantasies of killing Baskin in front of Moor and others.
Baskin had publicly accused Maldonado-Passage of animal abuse, from running cub-petting operations to illegally selling big cats. Big Cat Rescue had also successfully sued Maldonado-Passage for trademark infringement after he used images and logos that were very similar to the wildlife sanctuary’s. In 2013 he was ordered to pay nearly $1 million.
In the years that followed, the tension between the two would escalate in videos and online rants.
Maldonado-Passage’s videos became violent over time. He even posted a video of himself shooting a blow-up doll in the head that was dressed like Baskin.
As his reporting went on, Moor said he found the cracks in Maldonado-Passage’s stories.
“I certainly felt shifting allegiances,” Moor said. “My goal is for you as a listener to have the same feeling I was feeling as a reporter.”
Big Cat Rescue posted a statement on its website objecting to how the podcast framed Maldonado-Passage’s and Baskin’s interactions.
“We disagree with the marketing of the podcast as a feud, because while Joe Maldonado was clearly personally obsessed and filled with hatred, at our end it was never personal. It was about stopping the mistreatment of the animals."
Baskin has written extensively about Maldonado-Passage and her thoughts on the podcast on Big Cat Rescue’s website. She declined to be interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times.
“No matter how much evidence I gave the reporter [Robert Moor] to show this wasn’t a personal feud, I was still at the mercy of the editors who already had the storyline in their heads regardless of the facts,” Baskin wrote to the Times in an email.
Baskin addressed Maldonado-Passage’s conviction in a video posted online. He has not yet been sentenced by a federal judge.
“While media attention regarding this trial has primarily focused on the murder-for-hire charges, there is a much larger significance to the wildlife charges,” she said in the video.
All six episodes of Over My Body: Joe Exotic are available to stream now.