Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is a new documentary series on Netflix that’s managed to do the impossible: temporarily distract a world stressed out by dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. The seven-episode series, directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, focuses on Joseph Maldonado-Passage — aka Joe Exotic — and his Oklahoma exotic-animal park. As of Monday, it was the No. 1 show on the streaming network.
When the show begins, Joe has an impressive blond mullet, a flamboyant wardrobe, multiple husbands, and a raging feud with Carole Baskin, the owner of a big-cat sanctuary. All of that is as tame as a bowl of warm milk compared with what comes next. Every element in Tiger King gets weirder, and every personality who comes on camera has a secret, a compellingly weird event in their history, or dozens of each. Joe runs for president and governor, tries for a country music career, makes bizarre videos suggesting his rival fed her missing husband to her tigers and so, so much more.
There’s a strange comfort to be had in taking refuge in this specific brand of American craziness. For viewers self-isolating in their homes, it’s a reminder that the world was weird in so many varied ways before coronavirus. God willing and the creek don’t rise, it will one day get a chance to be that weird again.
Since the series started streaming on March 20, dozens of news stories and interviews have dug into the real people and events behind the show. Some spoilers ahead, but if you’ve already watched the series, read on for nine juicy tidbits that the show itself didn’t reveal.
1. That (mostly) isn’t Joe singing
In multiple episodes, Joe brags about his singing career and songs such as “I Saw a Tiger” are heard. But anyone with ears can tell that the polished, country-music-veteran voice crooning the tunes doesn’t sound anything like Joe Exotic’s drawling speaking voice. Real musicians Vince Johnson and Danny Clinton were the real musical power behind Joe’s Milli Vanilli act. Johnson told Vanity Fair that they worked for free, thinking they’d earn fame from a reality show about Joe’s life. (Clinton died in October, TMZ reports.) The show’s directors, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, told the L.A. Times that a fact-checker discovered that Joe did sing somewhat on certain songs, so they chose not to call him out on it in the show.
2. Don’t blame the tiger for that missing hand
In the first episode, Kelci Saffery, one of Joe’s employees, is seen immediately after being bitten by a tiger. Saffery chooses to have the injured hand amputated rather than undergo numerous operations, returns to work just five days later, and shows up throughout the show displaying a stump. Saffery has said from the beginning that no one should blame the tiger and, though it’s not mentioned in the episode, the tiger was not put down. In a 2013 statement, Saffery said, “I broke protocol and stuck my hand in a cat cage instead of using the stick provided.” Actor David Spade interviewed Saffery in a video published March 27. “I just got complacent,” Saffery said about the injury. And the tiger didn’t pay the ultimate price for the bite. “(The tiger) wasn’t put down, we just moved it off of the park, off of display,” Saffery said.
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3. John Finlay got his teeth fixed
David Spade, who’s admitted he’s obsessed with the show, didn’t just interview Saffery, but also a number of other Tiger King cast members, including John Finlay, one of Joe Exotic’s romantic partners. Finlay was noteworthy on the show for only having a few visible teeth, but now he has full dentures and is almost unrecognizable. “It took a while,” he told Spade of his dental procedures. “But after I got ’em fixed the right way, they were perfect.” Finlay did tell Spade that he thought getting his teeth fixed was more painful than getting his 51 tattoos and that the pink-shirt three-groom wedding seen on the show was all Joe’s idea.
4. Those alligators were famous
Tiger King is mostly about the big cats, although the reptile residents of the park have a sad storyline in one of the episodes when their enclosure catches fire. John Finlay told David Spade in his video interview that some of the alligators at the exotic-animal park came from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. He also said that working with the crocodiles and alligators was more dangerous than working with the big cats, in part because of the reptiles’ giant and threatening tails. Finlay also said that he’s not in contact with Joe Exotic at all, plans to get all the tattoos of Joe’s name covered up and is engaged to a woman now.
5. The accident that took John Reinke’s legs was even worse than described
John Reinke, former manager at Joe Exotic’s animal park, is shown many times putting on and taking off his artificial legs, explaining that he needs them not because of a cat attack, but due to a previous accident. Like everything in Tiger King, that’s only half of the dramatic story. Back in 2010, Reinke explained his accident to The Oklahoman newspaper. Though he describes it as a ziplining accident in the show, the article describes it as a bungee-jump accident — it certainly involved a fall from a terrifying height. Not only did a pulley malfunction, sending Reinke tumbling 55 feet to the ground and crushing his legs, but he didn’t just land on the earth. He fell onto a 6-inch metal stake, piercing his colon and stomach, the paper reports. He later had more than 20 operations on his feet and legs.
6. Shaq is not Joe Exotic’s friend
Tiger King gets so weird that viewers might forget that NBA star Shaquille O’Neal briefly shows up in an episode. But on March 25, O’Neal said on The Big Podcast with Shaq that the two are not pals. He said he loves tigers and visited the park a few times but “had no idea all that stuff was going on.” He said he still loves the animals and has made donations to support them, but is not close to Joe Exotic. “I was just a visitor,” O’Neal said on the podcast. “I met this guy, not my friend, don’t know him, never had any business dealings with him.” And don’t go to the athlete’s house expecting to see big cats, though he could certainly afford them. “Do I own tigers personally at my house?” O’Neal said. “No.”
7. Petting the cubs has a dark side
Joe Exotic earns money by charging visitors to come to his exotic-animal park and take photos cuddling with the big-cat cubs. But directors and writers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin told the L.A. Times that they never gave in and cuddled the the baby cats, especially after what they saw. “Most of the tigers we were around were subjected to abject cruelty,” Chaiklin said. “We saw babies being torn from their mothers and screaming. They’d get sick from being handled so much and get ringworm and mange. It was disturbing.”
8. Carole’s missing husband is still missing
A large part of the series focuses on Joe Exotic’s nemesis, activist Carole Baskin, whose husband Don Lewis disappeared in 1997. Joe Exotic, who is now serving 22 years in prison for charges related to Baskin, claims over and over in the series that Baskin killed James and fed the remains to her big cats. On the website for Big Cat Rescue, her animal organization, Baskin refutes how she was portrayed in the documentary. “(The directors) did not care about truth,” she says. “The unsavory lies are better for getting viewers.” As for Don James himself, his disappearance remains a mystery. On Monday, Hillsborough, Florida Sheriff Chad Chronister even tweeted out a request for anyone with any leads in the case to call him.
9. Joe loves the publicity. Duh.
You couldn’t watch more than a minute of Tiger King and not realize Joe Exotic adores fame and publicity. Even though he’s now in prison, the directors told the L.A. Times that Joe knows the show has made him famous and he’s overjoyed. “He is absolutely ecstatic about the series and the idea of being famous,” Goode told the paper. “He’s absolutely thrilled.” And the directors aren’t buying Joe’s sudden change-of-heart. “He is in a cage and of course he’s gonna say that he now recognizes what he did to these animals,” Goode said.