Going Wild for the Tiger King

Netflix’s promotional image features a lounging Joe Exotic, the titular “Tiger King” from “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” References to the documentary series have been all over social media since its Mar. 20 premiere (Photo by Samantha Semerau).

If you have been on social media any time since the COVID-19 pandemic forced most Americans to stay home, then you have likely heard about the Netflix documentary series, “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” There have been costumes, song covers and music videos, petitions and memes referencing the show and its subject.   

But who is Joe Exotic, the so-called “Tiger King”? Where did this sudden craze for the eccentric private zoo owner come from? 

Who is the “Tiger King”?

Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage (né Schreibvogel), best known as Joe Exotic, is the former owner of a private zoo in southern Oklahoma. The 16-acre zoo was originally titled Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park in tribute to his brother who died in a car accident two years prior to the zoo’s 1999 opening. It would later be renamed to the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, or G.W. Zoo for short. 

In his 20 years as owner and operator of the G.W. Zoo, Joe housed over one thousand animals, including alligators, baboons, chimpanzees, lions and over 100 tigers. The zoo under his care was mostly staffed by people with little to no exotic animal experience. 

In addition to his unusual career, Exotic has an equally unique personality and fashion sense.  On top of his signature bleach blonde mullet, handlebar mustache, rustic yet flamboyant clothing, multiple tattoos, multiple earrings and an eyebrow piercing that pierces more of his eyelid than his eyebrow, Exotic has a personality to match. 

Exotic is a self-proclaimed “gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet.” He gathered a small international following with his internet show, JoeExoticTV. In addition to updates from Exotic on his zoo, the show detailed his views on society and politics. The show also featured Exotic’s ongoing feud with animal rights activist and Big Cat Rescue sanctuary owner Carole Baskin. 

Exotic’s battle with Baskin is the subject of most of the Netflix documentary series. In addition, the series features some of the music released under Exotic’s name. He has a discography composed of several country music albums. His most famous songs include “Here Kitty Kitty,” a diss track aimed at Baskin, and “I Saw a Tiger,” an anthem about the connection between animals and humans.

In addition to being a zookeeper, entertainer and musician, Exotic also had a brief stint as a politician. He ran for president in 2016 as an independent and for Oklahoma governor in 2017 as a libertarian. He finished third in the Libertarian party primary. 

What is “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness?”

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” is a seven episode documentary miniseries exclusive to the Netflix streaming service. All seven episodes premiered on Mar. 20. 

While mainly following the feud between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin leading up to Exotic’s arrest for hiring a hitman to kill Baskin, the documentary also covers much of the world around them. This includes Exotic’s employees and lovers; the disappearance and presumed death of Baskin’s first husband; Baskin’s controversial sanctuary; other private zoo owners; the business partners involved in Exotic’s arrest; and the controversy of big cats in captivity. 

The series manages to pack in a web of stories and subplots within its seven episodes. The length of each episode varies with most being around 45 minutes long. 

Why is everyone going crazy for “Tiger King”?

The most obvious correlation between current events and the minseries’s popularity is the stay-home mandate that was ordered in most states within a week of the show’s premiere. “Tiger King” was released at an optimal time, with usage of streaming services up 20% the week of its debut which is largely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Within two weeks of its premiere, the show became the No. 1 most-watched title on Netflix. It is currently ranked the most popular current TV show on Rotten Tomatoes

The consensus from most reviews for the series is overwhelmingly positive. The series currently has an 82% viewer rating with Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.0/10 star viewer rating from IMDb. Reviews for the series include praise for the “increasingly bizarre twists” and that it is “a tiger of a tale” and “built for binge-watching.” 

The outlandish content of the series combined with its ideal airdate was a recipe for social media popularity. The show has skyrocketed in popularity and has been the source for hundreds of inside jokes on the Internet. 

Exotic’s story does not end with the documentary series, either. For those that cannot get enough of the Tiger King, a limited series adaptation about Exotic is in development. The adaptation will be based on Exotic’s episode on the podcast “Over My Dead Body.”

About Sam Semerau 45 Articles
Sam Semerau is an Albion alum from Oakland Twp., Mich. She double majored in English and History. She worked for the Pleiad from spring 2020 to spring 2022 and served as editor-in-chief for the 2021-2022 school year. She began Pace University's MS in Publishing program during fall 2022.

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