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Tiger King: What are the actual crimes in this story?

The first time I watched Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness on Netflix, I had no idea what it was about–just that it was true crime. The first episode played in the background while I worked on some mundane project on my computer. Eventually, I stopped what I was doing and just stared at the television.

If you somehow missed the Tiger King story, here are the high points.

  • Joseph Maldonado-Passage (i.e., Joe Exotic, The Tiger King) was the owner of a zoo filled with exotic animals, tigers being the main attraction. He also made public appearances with his animals.

  • Carole Baskin is an animal rights activist and CEO of Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit animal sanctuary. The group openly criticized Joe Exotic, his zoo, and how he treated his animals, leading to multiple investigations of his business.

  • Eventually, their feud escalated, and Joe Exotic hired someone to kill Carole Baskin. Joe's attorneys claimed he wasn't being serious (though I can't seem to find any details on how they explain how the "joking" conversation started). Prosecutors claimed he offered $10,000 to an undercover FBI agent to kill Baskin in December 2017.

The Charge(s)

The media around the character that Joe Exotic is sometimes makes it difficult to remember what criminal charges were actually brought against him.

He was found guilty on

  • two counts of hiring someone to murder Baskin in Florida,

  • eight counts of violating the Lacey Act by falsifying wildlife records, and

  • nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act by killing five tigers and selling tigers across state lines

When I thought back to the documentary and what I remembered, I had forgotten about the charges outside the murder-for-hire plot. I also didn't realize that he was found guilty on two counts. Reviewing and understanding those charges made me remember the story in a little different light. Carole Baskin wanted him to face criminal charges for how he treated the animals in his zoo, and ultimately, he did.

Considering how quirky so many of the people involved in the story are, I was surprised that the trial was rather uneventful. The trial began in March 2019 (less than two years after the recording of Joe attempting to hire someone to kill Carole Baskins).

He was sentenced to 22 years in prison, which was eventually reduced to 21 years.

The Trial in the Media

What made Joe Exotic's story so engaging?

Like so many popular true crime stories, there isn't a single factor that made this one stand out. It was a combination of elements, some of which are listed below.

  • The "main character" had multiple aspects of his life that were outside of societal norms. He owned a zoo (that potentially operated illegally), had numerous husbands, promoted the use of drugs amongst friends and staff, recorded two albums and created several music videos, ran for public office, and was openly hostile toward animal rights activists. Any of those traits could make for an exciting documentary, so all of them tied to one person made for more interesting storylines than they could ever hope for.

  • The "victim" of the crime was a character herself! Slightly awkward, people seem to be drawn to her. But most importantly, she was once accused (by the public anyway) of murdering her former husband. How often do we see a case where the victim is also potentially a murderer?

  • Joe and Carole both had extensive amounts of video footage for documentarians and the public to view. Like the rise of cell phone videos provided us with intriguing, honest insights into our friends' lives, all of the video footage of Joe and Carole simply doing their jobs made us feel like we were experiencing their journeys firsthand.

  • The Netflix documentary was released in March 2020. Did anything else happen in March 2020? Oh, right… a global pandemic that had everyone sheltering in place (and probably watching even more TV than usual).

This case came to the public fully baked. While Joe Exotic supporters are still working on getting him pardoned, the world largely believes that he is guilty of all of the crimes he was convicted of. There are very few alternate theories about Joe's innocence (there are far more about whether Carole killed her first husband), yet we still find plenty to talk about.

This case stood out to me as one that doesn't intrigue people because they have so many questions about the resolution. They have so many questions about the people involved! Can we learn from that as we think about how to bring attention to cases about people who are missing or attempts to locate fugitives?

Resources for Citizen Investigators & Internet Sleuths

If you'd like to experience the story as a podcast, check out Wondery's Joe vs. Carole. As always, Wondery does not disappoint.

There is also a book–written by Joe Exotic– called Tiger King: The Official Tell-All Memoir. I have not read it, so if you have, please let me know what you think! I am sure it is biased, but as long as you remember that while reading, I believe there is potentially interesting content… probably content that isn't in any other media about the case.

In 2022, Peacock released Joe vs. Carole, a scripted version of the Tiger King story, and I thought it was interesting to watch. Knowing the story already, I think I focused more on the pieces of their story that I wasn't familiar with or had simply forgotten about. Since it was scripted, they could also add dialogue and fill out the story, giving us a slightly different look at the key players.

The latest related Netflix documentary is Tiger King: The Doc Antle Story–which I didn't find as interesting. Perhaps because the original documentary was so full of twists and turns, there's no way to match it. But I suspect it's because Joe and Carole–each in their own way–made the original true story seem stranger than fiction.

I found it interesting that this case brought attention to how crimes against animals are often tied to larger crimes–which you may not think of.

"Wildlife crime is often connected with other criminal activity such as fraud, narcotics, money-laundering and smuggling."

If that angle interests you, check out the full press release from the District Attorney for the State of Oklahoma. There is an excellent description of how much this case covers, and it is a good reminder that all legal rulings are intertwined.

Have you seen one or all of the Tiger King media pieces? What do you think? Drop your thoughts in the comments!

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