Today we cover a docuseries that has captivated the nation and the world at large for its sheer audacity and bizarre twists and turns. And while there are so many reasons to love, or love-to-hate, Tiger King, we here love it mostly because it is so damn queer. Along with a gay protagonist, who weds two bisexual lovers – at the same time – and hires several LGBTQ staff members. We also see a series of other queer characters and polysexual people. In fact, it seems one can’t be a ‘big cat owner’ unless they’re willing to be in an open or polyamorous relationship. We want to throw out a spoiler alert, and if you haven’t seen the docuseries then you might be tempted to believe we’re making all of this up. We think you’d probably enjoy our episode better if you have seen the series, but it is doubtful that we could ruin the experience that is Tiger King.
Before we dive in we want to make our listeners aware of a few things. First, we have a guest with us today which is Evan’s wife and Tiger King fan, Samantha Taylor. Second, this will be a little bit of a different kind of format than our traditional episodes so hold you cool cats and kittens as you follow along. And finally, we also want to acknowledge our two main sources; of course there is the Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. And a lesser-known source, Robert Moor who for the last four years has hosted the Joe Exotic: Tiger King Podcast . Rob Moor is an award-winning journalist and author who has probably done the deepest dive into the man who calls himself Joe Exotic. We’re going to take the docuseries episode by episode and break down the characters, share some of our favorite parts, and reveal some information our listeners may not be aware of.
We want to put a disclaimer out that we will be covering some serious issues such as cults, sexual assault, sexual grooming, and of course violence and murder. But overall the goal of this episode (or possibly episodes) is to have a good time and laugh at the improbability and ridiculousness of this all. Ultimately, every main character is a horrible person who deserves any whatever ridicule comes their way, regardless of whether their past made them who they are. As for the outlying characters who were caught up in the drama and made victims by the protagonists, we have the utmost respect and wish them the best. We also want to credit David Spade’s series on YouTube Lights Out: Live From the Bunker where he interviews several cast members. Most of whom are the good people who were hurt deeply by the whole sordid ordeal. But now, lets begin the exotically queer tale of the Tiger Kingdom.
EPISODE 1 – “NOT YOUR AVERAGE JOE”
In episode one of the seven part series, we meet the main protagonist Joe Maldonado, known universally as Joe Exotic. Joe was born in Garden City, Kansas on March 5, 1963 and his family bounced around for a while before settling in Pilot Point, Texas. He grew up in the Bible Belt of the deep south and had a very traditional, christian upbringing. He was trained as a paramedic and hired onto the Eastvale Police Department at age 18.
Joe says in the documentary that he knew he was gay as a young child but tried to supress the feelings and become the son his parents wanted. The local police department was small and by age 19 Joe had worked his way up the ladder and was promoted to Chief of police in the small town. But even this symbol wasn’t enough to protect him from his family’s rejection. When a sibling outed Joe to his parents, he tried to run his police cruiser off the road. Reporting to the newspapers and the station that he was run off by drug lords. But even with the lie Joe knew he had to get out of town so he went to West palm beach, Florida where he underwent therapy and got a job at a local pet store.
When Joe returned to Texas at age 23, he and his brother had opened a small pet store in Arlington, Texas. It was around this same time that the future Tiger King began to date and then married Brian Rhyne, a man he’d met in their local gay bar. Together the three men, Joe, Brian, and Joe’s brother Garold, ran a moderately successful exotic animal business for the next 9 years. Until Garold was killed in a drunk driving accident in 1997. Joe and Brian took money they won in the lawsuit against Garold’s drunk driver, and opened The Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park opened exactly two years after Garold’s death. Sadly, Joe was not done losing people. Brian had been living with HIV which was beginning to progress. In 2001, Joe took Brian to the hospital but they never made it inside. Brian died in Joe’s arms in the parking lot.
It was after these events that a change seemed to take a hold of Joe. Robert Moor is a journalist who has covered Joe Exotic extensively. He talks about the switch in this man who previously had been an animal lover, a proud gay man (who defied local 1990’s ordinances and hung gay flags in the windows of his shop), and a gentle soul who truly wanted to help others. Instead he became hardened and aggressive, only wanting people for what they could do for him. Moor stated on twitter that he felt Joe looked for young men that were emotionally unavailable. People he could ply and lure with gifts and drugs and promises of an exciting life. Joe abused his staff members and grossly underpaid them, yet knew that since most of them were former convicts and runaways they had nowhere else to go. He would stand outside of bus stations looking for the exact kind of person he could manipulate while appearing to be a generous employer helping folks on hard times.
And almost worse, he was a pretty self hating gay man and it affected the LGBTQ people who worked for him. Docu series directors Rebecca Chaiklin told Vanity Fair:
Joe had a really abusive childhood, and he always talked about the fact that his father never said he loved [his children]; they were treated as farmhands. He also was flamboyantly gay in the Bible Belt at a time when that was not accepted and he had a lot to prove — and he was super conflicted about it. I remember when we first met him, he told us unabashedly that even though he was married, he didn’t believe in gay marriage — that he thought it was a sin. It evolved over time, but there were so many contradictions and he was damaged from everything he had been through: sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse as a child. And he, as most people do if they have not worked through those things, inflicted some of the same abuse on the people around him — and the animals. People are very complicated, and I have a lot of empathy in some ways for Joe because he’s been through a lot and he’s a super unique, creative, colorful, abusive, horrific person all at once. 
So now lets talk about some of the craziest scenes in episode one and some other interesting facts about Joe Exotic that we uncovered.
- We learn that Joe is a country singer. Except, it turns out he isnt. He doesn’t sing or write those catchy songs like “I Saw a Tiger”. The real singers are
- We meet Carole Baskin and learn about her cat print obsession and creepy laugh
- We see the Tiger King gift shop and “sex gel”
- We meet one of Joe’s husbands, John Finlay, who has an aversion to shirts.
- In fact, Joe has been married MULTIPLE times, and also never at all since he’s never had a legal husband. It seems that since Brian’s death he has only maintained polysexual relationships.
- One of Joe’s former husbands named JC (aka Jeffrey Hartpence) is currently serving a life time sentence for murder. THis was after he served time for molesting a young girl
- There’s a lot to be said for the bi-erasure, internalized homophobia, and general homophobia with the talk around Joe’s relationships with so-called “straight” men. We can ceratainly factor in the cult element of the situation, but that doesn’t explain a relationship that lasted over a decade. Such as was the case with John Finlay who was “married” to Joe for over 13 years and lived on the zoo site for 16 years.
- We get a peek at Joe’s magic show and learned an interesting story about this.During Joe’s magic act, he would make a tiger appear on stage. However, the lights and pyrotechnics scared the cats. So one day Joe decided to spray paint a sheep orange with black stripes and tried to fool the audience. They were not fooled and the sheep was also scared of the bright lights and noise.
EPISODE 2 – “CULT OF PERSONALITY”
In “The Cult of Personality” we dive further into the other characters in the Big Cat Game and what draws their followers. So let’s talk about these bizarre leaders and the crazy moments of the second episode.
- We start with Joe’s zookeeper Saff losing his arm to a tiger, and Joe inexplicably taking the time to throw on his paramedic jacket
- Joe utters the universal meme line “I am never going to financially recover from this”
- Saff returned to work within 7 days of the incident after he was given a chance to try to rehabilitate his arm or amputate it. He went with the amputation. He said he wanted to spare GW Zoo the bad publicity.
- He is former military and very reserved which also probably factored into his resolve to lose the arm.
- Saff is a transgender man who woked for Joe for many years. And despite having been out of at least 5 years, his name and pronouns were never respected by Joe.
- One director was asked if they would update or address the misgendering and deadnaming of Saff. The director said she reached out to Saff and relayed this statement: He’s very relaxed about it and really, to him, it doesn’t matter. I reached out just out of respect because if it’s problematic, do we need to make these changes? And that was the conversation we had.
- We meet another of Joe’s partners, Travis Maldonado. And Joe, John and Travis get married in a very pink ceremony.
- A LOT has been said about the so-called REAL sexuality of Travis Maldonado and John Finlay. Director Rebecca Chaiklin was asked the same question by Variety Magazine and said this:
Listen, they were in a relationship, whatever that relationship was. They, let’s say, struggled with it. I don’t know if it’s up to us to judge. If I’m in a relationship with a woman, am I gay? As we know now sexuality falls on a broad spectrum and people can have lots of different relationships, and I don’t think it would be appropriate for us to try and say whether somebody is gay or straight or bi. 
- According to Robert Moor, he was told by a former employee that Joe made ever person at the zoo sign a $1million Non-disclosure form. The fact that the form probably wasn’t legally binding doesn’t seem to matter.
- Employees at GW Zoo made $100 a week and ate expired meat from the Wal-Mart truck
- John Finlay (Joe’s husband) wasn’t paid for his first 11 years at the park, despite working every day.
- John Reinke is the manager who loves Joe to the very end and beyond. Told David Spade “There were times where I was the only straight man at the whole zoo. But Joe and I had a bond.”
- Gets volunteers to clean and maintain her park “I don’t pay anybody to do animal care because people will do that for free”.
- Red Shirts – beginner with classes and training
- Yellow shirt comes after a year volunteer work
- Green Shirts come after two years of free labor
- Navy Blue is master keeper and is for 5+ years of volunteer work
- Royal Blue are interns that work 6 days a week, 12 hours a day to fast pace the program.
- Interns/Volunteers work 365 days a year.
- We watch Carol’s own Big Cat Rescue music video which was cringeworthy.
- Many people ask “what is the difference between Carol’s sanctuary and the other sanctuary’s?”. According to the Big Cat’s Website Carol lays down a few reasons:
- The main difference between Big Cat Rescue and a zoo is our philosophy.
At Big Cat Rescue we believe it is cruel to breed a wild cat for life in prison. They belong in the wild and seeing them in cages hasn’t protected them from nearly going extinct. In fact, we believe that the practice of keeping wild cats in cages is causing their extinction because as long as people can pay $10 bucks to see a cat in a cage they aren’t going to do the hard work of protecting habitat, where they might never see one.
- Provide tours instead of letting public run free
- Big Cats does not buy or trade cats.
- They don’t make their cats sleep indoors at night and purposefully keep the sanctuary heavily planted so cats can hide.
- A no-contact facility so no staff, volunteers, or public touch cats.
- He was given the name Bhagavan by his mother, but while living in California as a young teen he used the name ‘Kevin’ because kids had a hard time pronouncing his name. 
- He is a “Doctor of Mystical Science” and earned a degree in Chinese medicine while studying overseas in China.
- His one and only legal wife died 25 years ago in a car accident.
- Since then he has been rumored to have multiple wives or girlfriends. Some would say victims, given the fact that so many of his female followers came to park as teenagers and then stayed on. He calls it his “apprentice program”.
- His park is filled with beautiful women who have lived with him at the zoo for 15 – 20 years.
- He has built large homes for his favorites
- He picks out the outfits the women wear and promotes a sexy feel.
- He controls everything they did, ate, and even strongly advised on body modifications such as implants.
- He changes the names of the women who work there. Many legally change their name to the one he’s given them. One former worker said “Changing your name is a very quick way to change everything else about you”
- “He would say ‘they’re free to leave at any time’. But that’s the way it is with all cults. They’re always free, I mean, they’re usually not locked up. They’re being held by a thousand, like, social ties, and by the idea of losing everything. And how are they even going to go and WHERE will they go when they leave”.
- One former survivor who has left told the docu series that her way to advance out of sleeping in filthy horse stalls was to sleep with Antle
- Supposed quote of Docs is “Men are pigs, women are sheep”.
- Previously fined for violating the Animal Welfare Act
- Accused of euthanizing cubs. 4 months old is the oldest one can play with a cub tiger.
- Antle vehemently denies all the claims in the series about his abuse of animals and the insinuations that he has a harem of women.