One murder-for-hire plot, 5 husbands, and 176 tigers: Meet Joe Exotic, the man Nicolas Cage will play in an upcoming TV series

Netflix‘Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness’


On May 4, Variety reported that a scripted series based on Joseph Maldonado-Passage’s life was in the works at CBS — and Nicolas Cage was tapped to star in it.

Reed Saxon/ APNicolas Cage.

Nicolas Cage, the iconic actor known for films like “Moonstruck” and “National Treasure,” will play Maldonado-Passage in a scripted, eight-episode series on CBS, according to Variety.

The show will be written and produced by Dan Lagana, the showrunner of Netflix’s Emmy-nominated mockumentary “American Vandal.” It will be based on a Texas Monthly profile of Maldonado-Passage.

The show marks Cage’s first television role – and the second scripted series set in the “Tiger King” universe. Kate McKinnon is supposed to executive produce (and star as Carole Baskin) in a separate production based on a Wondery podcast.


Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, is a former zoo operator who has tried his hand at politics and is currently serving 22 years in prison for killing tigers and concocting a plot to murder his rival.

NetflixJoe Maldonado-Passage.

Maldonado-Passage was born in Kansas in 1963 as Joseph Schreibvogel. He has described himself as a “gay, gun-toting cowboy with a mullet,” both in the docuseries and in a 2019 Daily Beast profile.


Maldonado-Passage is the star of Netflix docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness” which the streaming platform has described as “true murder-for-hire story from the underworld of big cat breeding.”

NetflixJoe Maldonado-Passage.

The show seems to be everyone’s new favourite true-crime saga – it was Netflix’s most popular title for two weeks straight in April.


The story of Maldonado-Passage’s roadside zoo begins in the 1990s after his brother died in a car accident. His family wanted to build a soccer field in his honour, but Maldonado-Passage wanted to build a refuge for unwanted exotic animals in his honour, instead.

Sue Ogrocki/AP ImagesJoe Maldonado-Passage at GW Zoo in 2013.

In October 1997, Maldonado-Passage’s brother Garold died in a car accident. They were close and had previously owned a pet store together. His wife and children wanted to build a soccer field in his honour, but Maldonado-Passage convinced them of another plan.

Shortly after, Maldonado-Passage purchased an old horse ranch in Wynnewood, Oklahoma.


He named the operation The Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park — better known as the GW Zoo.

Sue Ogrocki/AP ImagesA portrait of Maldonado-Passage’s brother Garold is tattooed on his right arm.

It started as a sanctuary for unwanted exotic animals, and it grew quickly.


By 2001, Maldonado-Passage had 89 big cats and a thousand other exotic animals in GW Zoo. But big cats are expensive to feed — Mike Tyson once spent thousands a month to feed his own pet tigers —and after a while, Maldonado-Passage ran out of cash.

NetflixJoe Maldonado-Passage at his zoo in Oklahoma.

For context, famed heavyweight champion Mike Tyson once owned three tigers, and spent $US4,000 a month on meat for mealtime, according to The Sun.

In the docuseries, Maldonado-Passage said he had as many as 176 tigers at one point.


In 2001, Maldonado-Passage started letting customers play with tiger cubs, charging $US25 to hold a cub for a few minutes and another $US25 for a photo of the interaction. Around the same time, his first husband, Brian Rhyne, died of HIV complications.

Benny Marty/ShutterstockA tiger cub being pet.

Many were happy to pay the price to share an experience with cubs, and the new cub-petting strategy increased revenue for Maldonado-Passage.

That same year, Maldonado-Passage’s first husband, Brian Rhyne, died of HIV complications. They met in the 1980s at a gay cowboy bar in Texas.


After Rhyne’s death, Maldonado-Passage adopted the Joe Exotic moniker and started travelling with cubs and performing magic shows. A New York Magazine profile reported that this venture once brought in $US23,697.

NetflixJoe Maldonado-Passage.

Maldonado-Passage’s 2002 mobile zoo efforts provided him with an entirely new business model that depended on a constant supply of cubs.


Maldonado-Passage started to rely on customer interaction with cubs for a paycheck, which created a constant need for cubs. He started breeding to meet demand.

Aleksandr Mostovoi/ShutterstockA young girl holding a tiger cub.

According to the USDA, tiger cubs are only safe to handle between four weeks and 12 weeks old. After that, they are considered to be dangerous.

To continue capitalising on the customer’s desire to interact with the animals, Joe Exotic needed a steady stream of tiger cubs – and so he started breeding them to keep his business model afloat.


Amid building his cub-petting and cub-breeding business in 2002, Maldonado-Passage’s personal life also went through a few changes, including a short-lived second marriage to JC Hartpence, and the start of a relationship with John Finlay.

NetflixJohn Finlay.

Maldonado-Passage married a man named JC Hartpence a year after the death of his first husband. At the time, Maldonado-Passage was 39-years-old and Hartpence was 24-years-old.

Their relationship was volatile and they split up a year later – Hartpence, who was not included in the Netflix docuseries, is serving life in prison for a murder unrelated to Maldonado-Passage.

Maldonado-Passage then met John Finlay, a fan-favourite from the docuseries, in 2003. Finlay was 19-years-old and just out of high school.


Meanwhile, Maldonado-Passage’s business caught the attention of Carole Baskin, a big cat advocate with a large social media following determined to end the cub-petting and breeding industry. According to Maldonado-Passage, Baskin published a negative op-ed about his zoo in an Oklahoma newspaper in 2006.

NetflixCarole Baskin.

In the docuseries, Maldonado-Passage says the pair’s feud began in 2006, after Baskin published an opinion piece in a local Oklahoma newspaper asserting that Maldonado-Passage’s zoo was not a sanctuary for big cats at all. Mudslinging between the two ensued.


Carole Baskin had her own operation called Big Cat Rescue in Florida. Her rescue is a non-profit exotic animal sanctuary devoted to ending private ownership of big cats.

NetflixCarole Baskin and her third husband, Howard Baskin, at their sanctuary Big Cat Rescue near Tampa, Florida.

Baskin also had a millionaire husband, Don Lewis, who disappeared in 1997. Maldonado-Passage said he thought her to be a hypocrite for having her own exotic animal operation and purported that she fed Lewis to her own tigers.

His disappearance was never solved, and Baskin maintains she had nothing to do with it. The release of the docuseries, however, has prompted a Florida sheriff to seek new leads in the cold case.


In 2011, Baskin filed a lawsuit against Maldonado-Passage for trademark infringement. She asserted that Maldonado-Passage altered the name of his operation to “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment,” similar to her rescue’s name, to spite her. A judge awarded Baskin $US1 million in 2013.

NetflixCarole Baskin.

In the lawsuit, Baskin alleged that Maldonado-Passage had purposefully changed his zoo’s name to resemble her rescue. Beyond changing the name of his zoo, he even registered a phone number in Florida, where Baskin’s operation was located.


The feud created public interest, which Maldonado-Passage then used to start putting out his own reality television show online in the early 2010s. Joe Exotic TV frequently included Maldonado-Passage slamming Baskin and singing country songs.

In an amalgamation of the two, Maldonado-Passage released a music video in 2015 called “Here Kitty Kitty,” which stokes rumours of Baskin murdering her second husband.

According to New York Magazine, it was later revealed that all of Maldonado-Passage’s songs, of which there were many, were written and performed by two musicians in Washington. Maldonado-Passage was lip-syncing.


Separately, he married John Finlay and a new employee, 19-year-old Travis Maldonado, in a joint ceremony in 2014. Maldonado was Maldonado-Passage’s fourth husband.

NetflixTravis Maldonado, Joe Maldonado-Passage, and John FInlay at their wedding ceremony,

Both Finlay and Maldonado identified as heterosexual, according to multiple zoo employees interviewed in the docuseries.

Finlay left the union a year later, for a woman with whom he had a baby.


In 2015, a mysterious fire burned down part of Maldonado-Passage’s zoo, killing alligators that once belonged to Michael Jackson and torching years of Joe Exotic TV footage.

AP ImagesMichael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

The TV studio, along with an adjoining alligator enclosure, unexpectedly went up in flames, destroying years of footage as well as killing a number of alligators.

The alligators in question originally came from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

Maldonado-Passage subsequently blamed Baskin, while the producer of the reality show blamed Maldonado-Passage himself. A culprit was never apprehended.


Shortly after, Maldonado-Passage joined forces with another big cat owner and businessman, Jeff Lowe. He was to fund Maldonado-Passage’s legal tussle with Baskin — and in exchange, he also retained ownership of the zoo.

NetflixJeff Lowe and his wife Lauren Dropla.

Lowe, who had been previously convicted for assaulting his wife, made the agreement with Maldonado-Passage in 2015.

Maldonado-Passage continued to be the face of the zoo.


While Lowe tried to ramp up business for the zoo, Maldonado-Passage decided to run for public office. He ran for president in 2016 as a Libertarian and landed 962 total votes.

In 2015, he launched a campaign for the presidency as a Libertarian. According to New York Magazine, his own campaign manager, Josh Dial, characterised him as “Donald Trump on meth.”

The docuseries made it clear that Maldonado-Passage ran on Dial’s platform. The pair met in a Walmart.


In 2017, Maldonado-Passage’s 23-year-old husband Travis Maldonado shot himself and died of his injuries. He married again two months later — this time to 22-year-old Dillon Passage.

NetflixTravis Maldonado and Joe Maldonado-Passage.

Maldonado accidentally shot himself in the zoo’s gift shop – in front of Dial, Maldonado-Passage’s campaign manager. At the time, Maldonado-Passage was mounting another campaign for Oklahoma governor.

Two months after his fourth husband’s death, he was married again. He met Dillon Passage through dating apps. Passage was 22-years-old.


Losing his fourth husband and marrying his fifth did not slow Maldonado-Passage down. He continued his campaign for Oklahoma governor, but with minimal results.

Dial served as his campaign manager again.

He received 644 votes in the primary, putting him in last place behind the two other Libertarian candidates.


At the same time, Maldonado-Passage attempted to hire a zoo employee to kill Baskin. The employee, Allen Glover, took the money but did not carry out the murder.

NetflixAllen Glover.

Glover was a former employee of Lowe’s. He worked as a handyman at the zoo. He was gruff and sported a teardrop tattoo.

Maldonado-Passage subsequently offered Glover money to drive down to Florida and kill Baskin. Glover accepted payment but did not carry out the crime.


After that debacle, Lowe and others like zoo insider James Garretson acted as FBI informants to help with Maldonado-Passage’s arrest. Maldonado-Passage was apprehended for the murder-for-hire plot in September 2018.

Santa Rosa County Jail/Associated PressJoe Maldonado-Passage.

Lowe and other insiders cooperated with the FBI in a sting operation.

Maldonado-Passage ultimately tried to hire an FBI agent to kill Baskin. He was arrested for the murder-for-hire plot on September 7, 2018.


Maldonado-Passage’s trial began in March 2019, and he was found guilty shortly thereafter in April. He was ultimately sentenced to 22 years in prison.

NetflixJoe Maldonado-Passage.

Maldonado-Passage was convicted on two counts of murder for hire and 17 counts of animal abuse, including killing and selling tigers. The jury deliberated for three hours.

He was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison.


Maldonado-Passage has been serving his sentence at a prison in Oklahoma, not too far from the zoo. He requested a presidential pardon from there in 2019. He was also potentially exposed to the coronavirus in jail.

Netflix‘Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness’

Maldonado-Passage wrote Donald Trump for a presidential pardon in 2019.

In April, he was reportedly transferred from isolation in an Oklahoma jail to a federal prison medical centre in Texas amid coronavirus concerns.

His husband, Dillon Passage, to whom he is still married, confirmed there were coronavirus cases at his jail on “Andy Cohen Live” on April 2, but did not elaborate on Maldonado-Passage’s condition or coronavirus test results.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.