Joe Exotic was done. For as far back as 20 years, 55-year-old Joe was the center, soul, and pervasive open face of a gigantic private zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, an hour up the shore of the Texas Line. He had boasted of owning the most important tiger collection in America. His sixteen-acre park was lined with metal cages, each full of majestic tigers, lions, bears, alligators, and even tiger-lion hybrids called tiligers.
His sun-leathered visage, horseshoe moustache, and blond mullet adorned signs everywhere on the zoo and every one along I-35 between Dallas and Oklahoma City. His image covered the side of a tour bus also as packages of condoms purchasable within the zoo’s eclectic novelty shop. His face had been on CNN, BBC, and CBS This Morning, and he had drawn many views on his YouTube channels and website, which hosted his shows, Joe Exotic TV, and Joe Gone Wild.
Most of Joe’s life—many of his best moments and lots of his worst—could be traced back thereto zoo. He had for years both worked and lived on the property. But by August 2018, his kingdom had about turned to dust. The zoo’s new owner, a flashy exotic animal breeder named Jeff Lowe, had squeezed Joe out of the business two months earlier and was within the process of dismantling much of the zoo, piece by piece, before taking its animals to a different facility.
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Joe had his issues with Lowe, but he blamed his troubles totally on someone else: Carole Baskin, the owner of a big-cat sanctuary in Tampa, Florida. To those outside the exotic animal industry, Baskin and Joe seemed to operate similar facilities. But their philosophies diverged sharply on nearly every animal right offering, notably the ethics of breeding big cats and allowing visitors to pet cubs, both of which had been fundamental parts of Joe’s business. Today there are more tigers in captivity than within the wild, and breeding remains a serious point of contention between conservationists and personal zoo owners like Joe. Baskin was Joe’s most vocal and effective critic, and in 2013 she had won a $1 million lawsuit against him. He became overwhelmed by vengeance and more than once pledged to cut Baskin down.
But he had done so, after years of trying, and lost everything within the process. Now all he wanted was to shed his identity and leave behind the swollen persona that had become the foremost recognizable—and controversial—the exotic animal industry had ever seen. So, alongside his then 22-year-old husband and 4 dogs, he had split for Florida. They ended up at a Motel 6 in Pensacola and shortly discovered a suburb named Gulf Breeze. The sand was white, the water clear. He found work washing dishes at Peg Leg Pete’s, a pirate-themed seafood joint, and bartending for a catering company in the dark. He had found his new home.
On the morning of September 7, 2018, 81 days after Joe had left the zoo, he visited an area hospital to use for a 3rd job. It had been a sunny Florida day—there was dew on the grass; the temperature was good. Joe parked near the hospital and stepped down from his blue Ford F-150 together with his résumé in hand. Out of nowhere, four plain vehicles slid to a stop around him. During a flash he was surrounded by plainclothes enforcement officers. Joe watched as they pointed their weapons at him and shouted, “Get on the ground! Get on the ground!”
He dropped and felt a knee crash into his back. He was cuffed and brought to the federal courthouse for an arraignment hearing. Joe learned that he was being accused of attempting to rent two hit men to kill Carole Baskin.
Suddenly, he was famous again, his mulleted mug everywhere the national news. The story of how it had come to the present would strain even the darkest imagination.
Joe, and one among his tigers, Sarge, in December 2016, because the zoo descended into chaos.
Before he was Joe Exotic, he was Joe Schreibvogel, conceived on a ranch in rustic Kansas. Though his parents had come from wealthy farming families, they didn’t pamper their children, and Joe always felt that he and his four siblings were born to figure as farmhands. It had been not an affectionate household. Joe’s parents rarely, if ever, told him they loved him.
His dad, a Korean War vet, relocated the family from Kansas when Joe was fourteen. First, they visited Wyoming, where the property they owned appeared to Joe like a whole mountainside. Then they moved to Pilot Point, Texas, north of Dallas, where they lived in an eight-bedroom house on an outsized ranch.
Joe wasn’t close together with his siblings, apart from his older brother, Garold. Joe and Garold shared a profound love of creatures. Joe participated in Future Farmers of America and sometimes brought home raccoons, ferrets, and other creatures to worry about. He and Garold liked to observe nature shows on TV, and Garold confided in Joe that he hoped within the future”; at some point to measure in the wild in Africa, so he could see the gorgeous beasts there running free.
When Joe graduated from high school, in 1982, he became a policeman in nearby Eastvale. At age nineteen, he was promoted to chief of police. It had been alittle department. Only a couple of officers worked under him, and high crimes were rare.
Joe felt accepted by his colleagues, but he was only starting to come to terms together with his sexuality. Joe hadn’t yet told his parents that he was gay when one among his siblings outed him to his father, who made Joe shake his hand and promise not to attend his funeral. Joe was devastated. At some point shortly after, he was approaching a bridge in his cruiser and decided he wanted to die. He veered into a concrete barrier, nearly plummeting over the sting of the bridge. He survived, but he was severely injured. He moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, and underwent months of inauspicious physiotherapy.
There, he lived with a boyfriend and got employment performing at a pet store. His neighbor worked at an exotic animal park nearby and would often click with baby lions and monkeys that he’d let Joe bottle-feed. Joe was hooked. He moved back to Texas and commenced his career within the exotic animal industry.
In 1986 Joe, Garold, and Joe’s first husband—Brian Rhyne, whom he’d met at a bar in Dallas and married in an unofficial ceremony—bought a pet store together in Arlington. For the primary few years they sold reptiles, birds, and little fish. Joe and Garold were both clever about finding ways to form money. Garold would dumpster dive behind furniture, and carpet stores and switch the trash into cat playgrounds and doghouses, which he would sell. They used the cash to expand their store, buying bigger cages for little exotic pets, like three-banded armadillos and four-eyed opossums. It had been a pleasant little business that suited the brothers’ passions. But then, in October 1997, disaster struck. Garold was hit by an alcoholic driver outside Dallas. He died within a week.
Two of the darkest moments in Joe’s life—his attempted suicide, and therefore, the death of his brother—had happened in Texas. Joe needed a change. The pet store wasn’t an equivalent without Garold, so Joe decided to sell it. He never forgot his brother’s love of untamed animals, though, and with the assistance of $140,000 his family had won during a lawsuit associated with Garold’s death, he bought sixteen sections of land about an hour south of Oklahoma City. Joe poured concrete for walkways and manufactured a line of nine confines. The Garold Wayne Exotic Animal cemetery opened two years to the day after Garold’s death.
Word spread quickly that Joe had opened an animal sanctuary, and other people began dropping off exotic animals that they not wanted. Two of Garold’s pets, a deer, and a wild ox, were the zoo’s first occupants. Then came a cougar. Then a bear. In 2000 Joe got a call from a gamekeeper telling him that somebody had abandoned two tigers during a backyard near Ardmore. Joe brought them back to the animal park. They were his very first tigers. He named them Tess and Tickles. They bred, and Joe raised their cubs. The gorgeous beasts were hardly running free, but here they were up close. Garold would have loved it, Joe thought.
Joe frequently took the stage together with his animals. His voyaging creature and enchantment show confounded the nation.
Trouble started early. In 1999, when the park was still under construction, Joe agreed to move a flock of emaciated emus that had been rescued from an outsized pen in oak, just south of Dallas. A number of the emus escaped while he was loading them up and headed for the freeway. Joe shot a minimum of six of them, and that they flailed around like chickens that had just been beheaded before they died. Local enforcement and therefore, the SPCA blasted Joe for his recklessness, but a jury declined to indict him on animal cruelty charges.
Tragedy struck again in December 2001, when Rhyne passed away from a deadly infection. His funeral was held at the zoo. Within a year, Joe had a replacement lover and life partner, a 24-year-old named J. C. Hartpence. Helped by Hartpence’s understanding as an event maker, Joe built up a voyaging creature and enchantment show where children could pet tiger offspring while at the same time finding out about protection. He used stage names like “Aarron Alex,” “Cody Ryan,” and “Joe Exotic,” acting in strip malls and at fairs across Texas and Oklahoma and as far north as Green Bay, Wisconsin, where a paper ad depicted him as “Ace Illusionist Joe Exotic.”
Soon Joe needed more employees to assist run the zoo and therefore the show . In the summer of 2003, he hired a nineteen-year-old named John Finlay. He moved in with Joe, and within a month they were in a relationship.
By now , Joe’s relationship with Hartpence was already breaking up . Hartpence was hooked in to drugs and alcohol and had become disillusioned with Joe’s intentions for the zoo. Hartpence wanted to ascertain it become a rehab-and-release sanctuary, with large enclosures where the animals had room to roam. Joe, on the opposite hand, was increasingly buying new animals from breeders and breeding animals of his own for profit. In mid-2003, Hartpence walked into the office and found a piece of paper on his desk. It was a printed color photograph of the zoo’s largest tiger, Goliath, menacingly baring his teeth over an enormous slab of meat. “J. C.’s remains” was typed in white letters over the picture. Connected was a Post-it note that read: “On the off chance that you don’t get your crap together, this is frequently going to be your existence.” Hartpence perceived the penmanship as Joe’s.
One night, Hartpence held up until Joe nodded off, at that point pointed a stacked .45 and a .357 Magnum at his accomplice’s head. Joe stirred to the press of the weapons positioning. “I need out,” Hartpence let him know. “Are we clear?” Joe convinced Hartpence to put down his firearms, at that point he called the police. Hartpence was captured at the zoo and stayed away forever.
As Joe’s zoo grew and his traveling show booked more events, he began to draw in more scrutiny from animal rights groups and federal regulators. In July 2004, the Oklahoman published a bit of writing a couple of crippled cub named Angel that had been born at the zoo, a possible results of inbreeding. “No genuine creature haven would permit that to occur,” said one dissident cited inside the piece. it had been Carole Baskin.
In 2006 the U.?S. Department of Agriculture suspended Joe’s license for two weeks and fined him $25,000 for an extended list of violations, including failing to provide adequate veterinary care and failing to urge obviate feces from animal enclosures. Later that year, People for the moral Treatment of Animals published a video showing what they alleged was the mistreatment of the animals at Joe’s zoo and thus the animals that he utilized within the show.
PETA’s recording indicated representatives talking about sporadic taking care of calendars, smacking creatures, and, in one case, hitting a tiger with the knob of a rifle. The association censured the zoo for purportedly “producing litters of tigers, lions, bears, and other fascinating creatures,” asserting that “some are disfigured, likely because of inbreeding or insufficient nourishment for the mother during pregnancy.” Local and government examiners got the zoo to explore the claims, in any case no charges were recorded.
By then the tiny 16-acre zoo had ballooned to hold quite one thousand animals (for comparison, the Dallas Zoo sits on 106 acres). there are quite 100 tigers, plus lions, chimpanzees, leopards, baboons, alligators, and smaller reptiles. In 2001 the zoo recorded total income of $117,022. By 2006 that number had grown to $539,320, the overwhelming majority from donations. Alongside the expansion of his nonprofit zoo, Joe expanded his for-profit ventures. within the zoo’s gift shop , he sold Joe Exotic–branded skin care products, alcohol, and condoms. Later, he opened a bar two miles down the road from the zoo called Safari Bar then a pizza joint named Zooters. He was building a brand.
More than thousand miles from Joe’s zoo, in Tampa, Florida, animal rights activist Carole Baskin was increasingly taking note of Joe’s exploits. Baskin was born at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio . Raised in Florida, she had hoped to be a veterinarian someday. In 1991 she married Don Lewis, a wealthy land investor. subsequent year, Lewis bought her a bobcat named Windsong. Baskin and her husband had saved it from an animal auction, where one bidder told Baskin he planned to club the cat over the highest and stuff it. Baskin and her husband quickly realized Windsong needed a playmate alternatively she would pan their home. They found an individual in Minnesota who agreed to sell them a second bobcat. Baskin was horrified once they arrived and discovered a metal shed crammed with bobcats being bred and slaughtered for his or her fur. She and Lewis bought every cat they might take back with them, 56 in all.
Baskin and Lewis continued to buy for exotic cats that were destined for death at the hands of fur traders—28 more in 1994, 22 in 1995. They acquired forty acres of land and built cat Rescue, a sanctuary that, very almost like Joe’s zoo, continued to grow as folks that owned big cats became disenchanted with the animals that that they had bought. As Baskin’s reputation grew, she became inundated with calls and emails from people asking if certain sanctuaries were legitimate or not and wondering where they need to donate their animals. She eventually started an online site where she compiled detailed reports on private zoos and sanctuaries. She called it 911AnimalAbuse.com. Its tagline: “Discover who the miscreants truly are.”
Baskin had her very own questionable foundation. Lewis, her better half, vanished in 1997 and was rarely found. Baskin was anything but a suspect in Lewis’ vanishing, yet she was denounced inside the media by Lewis’ kids, in the midst of an argument about his bequest.