Warning: Spoilers for Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness ahead. Did Joe Exotic hurt tigers in Netflix’s Tiger King? That’s a question most viewers wondered after the first episode of the Netflix’s new docuseries, Tiger King: Murder Mayhem and Madness, which follows the rise (and fall) of Joseph Maldonado-Passege (a.k.a. Joe Exotic), the owner of Oklahoma’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park.
Much of the docuseries, which was released on March 20, follows Joe and his feud with Carole Baskin, the CEO of Florida’s Big Cat Rescue. You see, Joe and Carole disagreed on their treatment of big cats. While Carole believed that Joe’s zoo conditions, breeding programs and attractions that charged visitors to pet lion and tiger cubs was abuse and a violation of animal rights, Joe didn’t think the same. Of course, this led viewers who haven’t finished the docuseries to wonder if Joe ever hurt (or killed) any of his animals or if he really cares about tigers as much as he wants people to believe. Spoiler alert: Joe wasn’t always kind to his big cats.
The second half of Tiger King follows Joe from the start of his animal park to his conviction for two counts of murder-for-hire, eight violations of the Lacey Act (a conservation act) and nine violations of the Endangered Species Act. And while his alleged murder-for-hire plot to kill Carole was one of the most riveting parts of Tiger King, it was the revelation that Joe killed five of his tigers and buried them in the back of his park that shocked viewers.
In October 2017, Joe allegedly shot to death five of his aging tigers to make room for other big cats, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Oklahoma. Along with the murdered tigers, Joe also allegedly sold tiger cubs in interstate commerce.Because tigers are an endangered species, the alleged killings and sales violated the Endangered Species Act.
While the Attorney’s Office claims that Joe killed the cats to make room for other animals in his cages, the self-proclaimed Tiger King doesn’t have the same opinion. In his federal complaint, Joe claimed that he “humanely euthanized” the tigers, who were shot in the skull, because they had suffered “14 years of painful walking on declawed paws to the point that they were crippled.”
The tigers were found in the back of his zoo by federal officers. One agent who saw the big cats testified that they were jammed together like “hot dogs in a pack.” During his trial, Joe expressed his surprise that tiger deaths were illegal. “In 20 years, I’ve had 50-plus tigers buried in that back pasture, and nobody gives a damn. Nobody,” he said.
Joe was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison on January 22, 2020.