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An insanely flamboyant zookeeper went to war with a female rival, writes TOM LEONARD

‘Tiger King’ Joe Exotic stumbled around his chaotic zoo with a holster rifle on his hip and an outrageous bleached haircut hiding under his baseball cap, happily wrestling with the big cats he bred.

He would talk extensively about what he would do with the animal rights activists who attacked him, firing his assault rifle at imaginary targets.

He had a special thought in mind: Carole Baskin, owner of a large cat shelter in Florida – “the mother Teresa of cats,” according to friends. It was she who led a campaign against Exotic, alleging that he mistreated the hundreds of lions and tigers he kept in Oklahoma. Exotic has now been in prison for 22 years after his later conviction of hiring a hit man to kill Baskin – although her critics maintain she’s not a saint herself.

Confident self-publicist: Joe Exotic with one of his many tigers. A former policeman and pet shop owner, 57, Exotic originally had good intentions and offered a home to unwanted adult big cats that had become too dangerous for their owners. But then he saw the lucrative commercial potential of charging people to pet lions and tiger cubs

Confident self-publicist: Joe Exotic with one of his many tigers. A former policeman and pet shop owner, 57, Exotic originally had good intentions and offered a home to unwanted adult big cats that had become too dangerous for their owners. But then he saw the lucrative commercial potential of charging people to pet lions and tiger cubs

Now the story of these two extraordinary characters has turned into a TV documentary. Tens of millions of viewers open-mouthed to the wild events of Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem And Madness, an utterly bizarre seven-part series on Netflix that tells the true story of the bizarre tiger and lion breeder and his bitter feud with the female activist who determined to close it.

With minimal fanfare, the series has become the most-watched show in both the US and UK, with celebrities and regular fans hiding social media to comment as Hollywood discusses a film version starring Margot Robbie.

Because it is not only Exotic that appeals to the imagination, but also Baskin. Amazingly, the documentary suggestions, which she has firmly denied, deal with killing her multi-millionaire husband, putting his body through a meat grinder and feeding his remains to their tigers.

However, Exotic, the hillbilly showman, is the ‘star’ series. Now behind bars for a conviction that included two counts of hit and animal cruelty, including killing tigers, he exploited America’s incredibly liberal exotic animal ownership rules to become what he believed to be the country’s greatest tiger breeder.

It is estimated that there are more tigers in the United States – up to 10,000 – than wanted in the rest of the world.

Exotic’s dismal ‘roadside’ zoo once had 227 large cats fed on aged supermarket meats.

Maybe because Tiger King is about caged animals, he captured the public mood.

Joe Exotic's nemesis Carole Baskin. Baskin led a campaign against Exotic for mistreating the hundreds of lions and tigers he kept in Oklahoma.

Joe Exotic's nemesis Carole Baskin. Baskin led a campaign against Exotic for mistreating the hundreds of lions and tigers he kept in Oklahoma.

Joe Exotic’s nemesis Carole Baskin. Baskin led a campaign against Exotic for mistreating the hundreds of lions and tigers he kept in Oklahoma.

The stunning images of gray rednecks happily running around in cages handling lions and tigers could not be further removed from today’s coronavirus-worried world, and the current ‘social distance’ fixated regime.

A former policeman and pet shop owner, 57, Exotic originally had good intentions and offered a home to unwanted adult big cats that had become too dangerous for their owners. But then he saw the lucrative commercial potential of charging humans to pet lion and tiger cubs, with prices starting at $ 25 for six minutes. However, cubs become dangerous to handle after just 12 weeks, so the company needed an extensive breeding program to maintain supplies.

Exotic not only bred lions and tigers in industrial quantities, but also crossed them to produce ‘ligers’ and other varieties, including a liliger and tiliger (tigers and lions bred with tigers).

The hybrids could be huge, and Exotic even claimed to be able to recreate a prehistoric saber-toothed tiger, although he was contradicted by scientists. Some of his creatures were so cross-bred that it was a wonder they could see everything.

As his animal kingdom grew in size, it caught the attention of Baskin, who discovered that her nonprofit shelter, Big Cat Rescue, in Tampa, Florida, was asked to house more and more animals bred and sold by Exotic to wealthy owners they dumped as soon as they got too bothered.

She was particularly appalled by his traveling road show in which he took cubs in the back of a truck to shopping centers and fairs where he would ask children to pet them. Ms. Baskin, who has a large online following among big cat lovers, threatened to embarrass the malls and publicly accused Exotic and his unscrupulous, cruel company.

The five-year documentary project came about after Eric Goode, a conservationist and filmmaker, investigated a controversial Florida reptile trader.

He was shocked when one of the dealer’s customers showed him a caged snow leopard in the back of his car he had just bought. This started Goode on a path that eventually led to Joe Exotic.

The latter – exotic in name and nature – was created for modern television. “He’s a completely insane, gay, armed, drug-addicted fanatic,” said his friend and co-owner of the zoo, Kevin “Doc” Antle, in the series.

He likes to dress in spangly shirts and leather chaps, is covered in tattoos and piercings and has had so many facelifts that his sideburns grow behind his ears. He was notorious at a local gay bar for once walking in on a leash with a tiger.

He was also a regular drug user, taking crystal methamphetamine, the highly addictive and harmful drug. His string of “husbands” – often at least 30 years younger than him and some almost toothless due to the meth – complained that they were actually straight but were attracted to him for providing them with drugs.

Baskin on a leash with husband Howard. Ms Baskin, who has never been prosecuted and insists she is innocent, accuses the documentary series of exaggerating the claims against her

Baskin on a leash with husband Howard. Ms Baskin, who has never been prosecuted and insists she is innocent, accuses the documentary series of exaggerating the claims against her

Baskin on a leash with husband Howard. Ms Baskin, who has never been prosecuted and insists she is innocent, accuses the documentary series of exaggerating the claims against her

They slept three in a bed with Joe in the middle. Like the men and women who worked for him, his friends were a bunch of rough diamonds that usually came from prison or rehab.

In one of the darker moments in the series, one of them accidentally – fatally – shoots himself in the Exotic Zoo office while playing with a gun.

Although clearly a compulsive liar, Exotic had a difficult young life.

He was reportedly raped by an older boy when he was five years old. When his farmer’s father discovered he was gay, he shook his son’s hand and made Joe promise not to come to his funeral.

Deeply unhappy about himself, Exotic rode off a bridge and broke his back, braced for five years. During his recovery, he lived next door to a safari park owner who would take baby animals home – which sparked Exotic’s interest.

He started his GW Exotic Animal Park on an old farm in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, in memory of his brother Garold after he died in a car accident in 1997.

Exotic shot horses donated to him and fed them to the cats. Later he worked as a stage magician, turning cubs into adult tigers.

As is all too clear in the TV series, Exotic is an obsessive attention seeker and broadcasts his own reality show online. He filmed almost everything he did at the zoo – and much of it is in the Netflix series in all its horrors.

Scenes include a zoo worker who just had her arm jerked off by a cat, unqualified staff doing veterinary work, a herd of 14 tigers competing for just five buckets of meat, and Exotic using a metal rod to feed a tiger cub. to draw his mother within moments after it is born.

In one scene, Exotic barely escapes a mauling after venturing into a cage to make a promotional video. He only manages to fight a tiger and get to safety by pulling out his pistol and firing multiple shots.

Many of his broadcasts, in which he occasionally sat on a huge throne he had made for himself, were devoted to the brutal assault of Carole Baskin. He repeatedly promised to kill her and even once shot an image of her in the air. Exotic, who also introduced herself as a country singer, mocked her with his songs and accompanying videos, including Here Kitty Kitty with a woman who would be Baskin and fed the remains of her former husband, Don Lewis, to his big cats.

He did not make up the mean story himself. Mr Lewis, another big cat collector, went missing in 1997 and the new TV series dedicates an episode to the mystery.

It interviews family and friends of Mr. Lewis, who believes that Mrs. Baskin (she married current husband Howard in 2004), a blue-eyed blonde wearing flowers in her hair, was somehow responsible.

She was never charged, although Mr. Lewis’s daughter publicly claimed that her stepmother, knowing he was about to divorce her, killed him and used the shrine’s meat grinder to get rid of his body before passing it on gave the cats.

Ms Baskin, who has never been prosecuted and insists she is innocent, accuses the documentary series of exaggerating the claims against her. “I couldn’t have put his hand through the mill, let alone through his body,” she says on camera, referring to the machine’s small size. Just like her bete noir with tiger breeding, Mrs. Baskin also came from a difficult background.

Growing up in poverty, she says she was raped at the age of 14 by three men who lived across the street, left the house at the age of 15, and married a man who abused her at the age of 17. Later, she began an affair with Mr. Lewis, a wealthy Florida businessman and a notorious womanizer.

She and Exotic aren’t the only larger than life characters in this tacky saga.

As revealed in the TV series, the business colleagues and fellow wildlife collectors are an outrageous bunch of social flaws hanging around with guns, exotic facial hair, many younger girlfriends and the belief that big cat attitude makes them look great too shows.

They include Kevin ‘Doc’ Antle who renamed himself Bhagavan – meaning ‘mystical lord’ – and has a harem of young interns to whom he has given new names and cosmetic surgery. Another big cat collector, Jeff Lowe, who Exotic passed his zoo to prevent Mrs. Baskin from considering it legal damage, would smuggle tiger cubs hidden in a Louis Vuitton bag to Las Vegas casinos to help him to women to talk.

Most of them turned on Exotic as federal agents became more and more interested in what he was up to.

By this time, the inveterate self-publicist had run not only to the U.S. Presidency in 2016 (claimed to be a ‘libertarian’, but admitted he didn’t understand what it meant), but also as Oklahoma governor, for which he shared condoms with his face pressed on it.

He suddenly fled his zoo in 2018, aware that he was a wanted man after paying $ 3,000 to one of his associates to kill Carole Baskin during her daily cycle around her sanctuary.

The unfortunate hit man went home to South Carolina instead and “partied.” Exotic tried to hire another man to do the job, but he was an undercover FBI agent.

Convicted last year and convicted in January, Exotic is now spilling the beans on animal rights researchers, who are eager to avenge other wildlife traffickers who helped convict him.

Their opponents, including steel-eyed Carole Baskin, hope that the entire industry can be killed by his unsavory revelations.

At Exotic people feel that it is all part of keeping themselves in the public eye. Tiger King fans are now dressing up as Exotic in a contest on Instagram.

The redneck Barnum must enjoy his greatest fame behind bars. “Joe has called me several times in recent weeks,” said Eric Goode.

First, he’s absolutely ecstatic about the series and the idea of ​​being famous. He is absolutely thrilled. I think he’s trying to support – no surprise – criminal justice reform.

“He’s in a cage, and of course he’s going to say he now recognizes what he’s done to these animals.”

As with everything else Exotic says, Goode took this newly found sympathy with the wildlife he mistreated with a “large grain of salt.”

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