Joe Exotic was done. For the previous two decades, 55-year-old Joe had been the heart, soul, and ubiquitous public face of a massive private zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, an hour north of the Texas line. He had boasted of owning the largest tiger collection in America. His sixteen-acre park was lined with metal cages, each filled with majestic tigers, lions, bears, alligators, and even tiger-lion hybrids called tiligers.
His sun-leathered visage, horseshoe mustache, and blond mullet adorned signs all over the zoo and all along I-35 between Dallas and Oklahoma City. His image covered the side of a tour bus as well as packages of condoms for sale in the zoo’s eclectic gift shop. His face had been on CNN, BBC, and CBS This Morning, and he had drawn millions of 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 many of his worst—could be traced back to that zoo. He had for years both worked and lived on the property. But by August 2018, his kingdom had all but 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 in the process of dismantling much of the zoo, piece by piece, before taking its animals to another facility.
Joe had his issues with Lowe, but he blamed his troubles mostly 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 appeared to operate similar facilities. But their philosophies diverged sharply on nearly every animal rights issue, 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 in the wild, and breeding remains a major point of contention between conservationists and private zoo owners like Joe. Baskin was Joe’s most vocal and effective critic, and in 2013 she had won a $1 million civil suit against him. He became consumed with revenge and repeatedly vowed to bring Baskin down.