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Everything Tiger King Didn't Tell You About The True Story

In March 2020, Netflix debuted what might be its most shocking (and bingeworthy) true crime series to date. Tiger King tells the story of the rise and fall of Joseph Schreibvogel, a.k.a. Joe Exotic, the charismatic proprietor of an exotic animal park in Oklahoma. But Exotic was more than just a zookeeper and a manager: He had a knack for self-promotion, positioning himself as just as much of an attraction as the close encounters with lions and tigers offered by his park. 

Tiger King describes, in increasingly bizarre detail, the complicated personal and professional life of Joe Exotic, which culminates in an elaborate murder-for-hire plot on Carole Baskin, a Florida-based operator of a wild cat preserve determined to get Joe's business (and others like it) shut down for immoral behavior toward animals. It's also a story that involves other cat aficionados, polygamy, cult-like arrangements, exploitation, shady business practices, and accidental death. Despite having seven episodes to work with, filmmakers couldn't fit the entire story into Tiger King. Here are some pertinent details that didn't make it into the series.

Joe Exotic had a lot more husbands

Joe Exotic is a serial monogamist, if not polygamist, boasting of his not-exactly legal simultaneous marriages to John Finlay and Travis Maldonado. After splitting with Finlay, and Maldonado's death, Exotic recoupled with Dillon Passage, but that's not the entire history of the Exotic husbands who also worked at his zoo. 

According to Intelligencer, in the late '80s Exotic worked as a security guard at a Dallas gay bar, where he met a 19-year-old cowboy named Brian Rhyne. They lived together for well over a decade (and were married at the bar where they met), and Rhyne was around for many of the events depicted in Tiger King. He was there when Exotic's older brother Garold died in 1997, and when Exotic opened the G.W. Exotic Animal Memorial Park in his memory. Rhyne died in 2001, in Exotic's arms, from HIV-related causes, and according to zoo employees, helped trigger Exotic's descent into colorful and erratic behavior. He also started spending a lot of time at a gay bar called the Copa, where he met his next husband, J.C. Hartpence (who later ended up sentenced to life in prison for murder). After that, Exotic met Finlay, and while with him met a young Insane Clown Posse fan known only as Paul, and they all slept together in one big bed. Only after Paul departed did Exotic hook up with Travis Maldonado.

Joe Exotic's animal magic act was less than magical

Joe Exotic engaged in more animal-related shenanigans and cheesy stabs at showmanship than a seven-part documentary could show. As touched on in Tiger King, Exotic performed as a magician with an act involving animals, under the stage names Aarron Alex and Cody Ryan. His assistant, Aaron Stone, was a guest on the podcast Joe Exotic: Tiger King, and detailed some finer points and deeply unflattering moments from Exotic's magician stint.

A big trick involved making a tiger magically appear on stage in a previously empty cage. A noisy explosion and pyrotechnics provided the necessary misdirect, but those things also frightened the big cat, who would show up in the cage near the back, cringing in fear. Since seeing a tiger in distress could make an audience feel uneasy (and make Exotic look bad), the magician decided to get rid of the tiger and bring in a sheep... which he'd spray-painted black and orange to resemble a tiger. Not only did audiences immediately recognize the painted sheep for what it was, but it was just as scared of the pyro — Stone had to go into the cage and hug the frightened creature for the length of the trick.

Joe Exotic didn't really sing those songs

As shown in Tiger King, Joe Exotic tried to be a lot of things — he was a zoo-running businessman, an animal handler, and, perhaps most inexplicably a country music singer who wrote and performed songs very much about his own life as a tiger lover. (Take for example his tune "I Saw a Tiger.") Those songs (loaded onto CDs sold in his park's gift shop) were so very personal, and yet Exotic had little to do with the enterprise, apart from the marketing. According to Tiger King co-star and Exotic's arch-nemesis Carole Baskin, those aren't the tiger king's golden pipes. "Joe Exotic only lip-synced to songs written and recorded by Vince Johnson and Danny Clinton," Baskin said on the Big Cat Rescue blog (via Newsweek), adding that she has emails from Johnson and Clinton, the real musicians behind those tunes, to prove it.

Rick Kirkham's stuff was lost in a fire... again

While viewers get a large overview of most every person involved in Tiger King, they don't learn all that much about Rick Kirkham. It's shown that he's a former gonzo reporter for the tabloid TV show Inside Edition who went to work as the producer of Joe Exotic's daily internet talk show. Viewers are left with the impression that Kirkham largely stayed out of the personally and legally devastating events everyone else in Tiger King engaged in, not counting how an unknown actor (heavily implied to be Exotic) burned Kirkham's studio, destroying hundreds of hours of possibly incriminating footage in the process. What's not shown in Tiger King is that Kirkham was the victim of a second mysterious arson not long after he left the Joe Exotic compound. Kirkham moved a couple of hours away to Dallas and settled into an apartment, which caught fire when he was still in it. Kirkham was safely removed by firefighters, but his dog died in the blaze. Police never made an arrest for either fire.

The disappearance of Carole Baskin's husband is a much larger story

The third episode of Tiger King dives deep into the backstory of Carole Baskin, leader of the Big Cat Rescue animal preserve and subject of a murder-for-hire plot by Oklahoma cat zoo operator Joe Exotic. Viewers learn that Baskin's previous husband, Don Lewis, disappeared in 1997, and Joe Exotic and his associates believe that Baskin killed him and fed his remains to her beloved big cats. Some of the details of his disappearance presented in Tiger King may raise eyebrows — such as a claim that Lewis tried to file an injunction against his wife after she threatened physical harm — but Baskin's side wasn't completely represented, nor was Tiger King the documentary she initially believed she was helping to make.

Their pitch was that what they were trying to do was create the Blackfish of the cat industry," Baskin told Vanity Fair of Tiger King's filmmakers, and referring to the 2013 SeaWorld exposé. Baskin participated in filming for five years, even through the exploration of her former husband's death, which she says awakened "a lot of painful memories." She claims to have fully participated with authorities in trying to track down Lewis, to no avail, and shared with Tiger King filmmakers her theory: that Lewis's secretary killed him. That's an interesting angle, but one Tiger King doesn't delve into (probably because it didn't have anything to do with cat people).