Zookeepers Gone Wild!
New York magazine|September 2-15, 2019
Zookeepers Gone Wild!
Joe Exotic bred lions, tigers, and ligers by the dozens at his roadside zoo. He was a 21st-century Barnum who found an equally extraordinary nemesis.
Robert Moor

Joe was born with an unusual last name, rough on the tongue: Schreibvogel.

People were always getting it wrong or using it against him, so he changed it, and changed it again, until he finally slipped free of it altogether. Over the years, as he amassed a string of husbands, he borrowed their last names, calling himself first Joe Maldonado, then Joe Passage; when he did his magic shows, he sometimes went by Aarron Alex or Cody Ryan; when he was filming his reality show, he called himself “the Tiger King”; but the name he was best known by, as a zookeeper, country-music singer, stunt politician, and amorphous internet celebrity, was Joe Exotic.

Joe grew up on a farm in Kansas among creatures of the barnyard variety—horses, cows, chickens, dogs, cats—as well as the varmints he and his siblings sometimes brought home: baby antelopes, porcupines, raccoons. Joe was born into the middle of the pack with two brothers and two sisters, and he often felt that his cold Germanic parents viewed him as a source of farm labor rather than a child. He recalls that no one in his family ever said “I love you” to each other.

Humans, Joe learned early, can be the cruelest of all God’s creations. When he was 5 years old, he says he was repeatedly raped by an older boy. This happened in his own home. He vividly recalls how a drawer in the bathroom could be opened to prop the door shut.

Joe chose to give his love to animals. He became the president of his local 4-H chapter, where he raised show pigeons. He took in ground squirrels and raccoons and kept them in cages until, his mother says, you could barely get through the back porch. (She put her foot down when he started bringing home snakes.) Joe dreamed of being a veterinarian. On afternoons when he wasn’t pulling weeds or doing chores around the farm, he would take his BB gun and shoot sparrows. Then he would collect used medicine bottles, leftover from treating the cows, and fill them with colored water so he could “doctor” the birds back to health.

Joe’s mother likes to say that Joe’s father, whom people called Francie, had “itchy feet.” When Joe was 11, Francie decided he would rather raise racehorses than crops, so his family began roaming north and south along the plains from Kansas to Wyoming to Texas. Few of Joe’s classmates from those years remember him, and his photo is often missing from his junior-high yearbook. In high school, he got bullied by the jocks because he preferred to hang around with girls. In retaliation, he says he sprinkled roofing nails all over the school parking lot and popped the tires of a hundred cars. “I had to get a job and pay for them all,” he later recalled. “But they never fucked with me again. Never.” (Those who knew Joe at the time, including the school’s principal, do not recall this event ever taking place.)

After graduation, Joe talked his way into becoming the police chief of a tiny, crumbling Texas town called Eastvale (population 503). He lived with a girlfriend named Kim but also explored Dallas’s gay nightlife. Overcome with shame one night in 1985, which Joe would later refer to as “the bad year,” he says he attempted suicide by crashing his police cruiser into a concrete bridge embankment at high speed. Residents of Eastvale do not recall this crash, nor do Joe’s family members, though Joe does have a photo of the demolished car, which he offered as proof.

In Joe’s mind, at least, the crash was the beginning of Joe Schreib vogel’s rebirth. He says he ended up with a broken back, spent 57 days in traction in the hospital, and then moved down to West Palm Beach, Florida, to participate in an experimental saltwater rehabilitation program. (Joe’s boyfriend at the time remembers only a broken shoulder and says the only saltwater rehab was snorkeling.)

Joe’s neighbor down there, a man named Tim, happened to be the manager of a pet store, and Tim’s friend worked at a drive-through zoo, one of those places where customers could ride around in safari cars and look out the windows at lions and other veld animals roaming (somewhat) free.

Joe remembers that Tim’s friend would sometimes bring home baby lions and let Joe play with them on their peach-colored carpet. In the drear of his life up to that point, these animals fluoresced. Imagine: to roll around on the living-room floor with a lion cub, something from so far away brought close enough to smell its warm, beasty fur. Joe liked to say he was broken and those little critters helped put him back together.

After a couple of years, Joe returned to Texas, got a job as a security guard at a gay cowboy bar called the Round-up Saloon, and met his first husband, Brian Rhyne, a slender, sassy 19-year-old. They moved into a trailer together in Arlington, where they shared their bed with a pack of poodles and grew to resemble each other, with mullets and horseshoe mustaches and dressed in jeans and boots. On Saturdays, they would snort pink-tinged meth and go out to the bars. Sundays, they lazed around at home and watched Westerns on TV. Joe and Brian eventually got married at the Round-up. This was the late ’80s. Gay marriage wasn’t even close to being legal, but they didn’t give a fuck.

Down the street from the trailer park where Joe and Brian lived was a pet store called Pet Safari. Joe got a job there, and later he and his brother Garold Wayne decided to purchase it. To attract a gay clientele, Joe hung rainbow banners outside and stocked the shelves with rainbow doggy T-shirts.

One day in October 1997, Joe received a call informing him that his brother had been involved in a car accident while driving to Florida. Garold died soon after. Joe’s parents won a sizable settlement from the trucking company responsible for the death, but his father refused to spend it, dismissing the settlement as “blood money.” Garold’s wife and kids wanted to build a soccer field in his honor, but Joe had another idea. It was his brother’s dream, Joe told them, to go to Africa and see wild lions and spend time with “people with bones in their noses and shit.” Since Garold never got to travel to the wilds of Africa, what if they could bring the wilds to people like Garold? So with the help of his parents, Joe purchased an old horse ranch in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, where he began building a refuge for rescued animals. He named it after his brother: the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park. Everyone called it the G.W. Zoo.

There was already a little ranch house on the property. Joe and Brian moved in. When new animals were born at the zoo, the babies lived in the house with him and Brian. As the years went by, Joe built more cages and fences all around the house, which he filled with lions and tigers and dogs until, almost without noticing, he became just another animal living inside a cage, inside the zoo.

CAROLE STAIRS was a wild girl, fond of wild things. She took in stray cats, which she would take for walks through the swamplands around her house in Florida. She dreamed of being a veterinarian. But she dreaded the dullness of adulthood, of rules and routine. She recalls climbing a tree in her backyard, looking out over the expanse of ticky-tacky houses, and praying, God, I never want to be this bored again.

She ran away from home at the age of 15 in 1977 with an employee from the local roller rink. For a time, she hitchhiked up and down the coast, from Florida to Bangor, Maine. She learned that the safest place to sleep at night was underneath parked cars because no one thinks to look for you there. Later she got an orange Datsun truck and slept in the back with her pet cat.

She got a job at a discount department store back in Tampa, where her boss, Mike, offered to let her keep her cat at his apartment so it wouldn’t roast in the truck during the day. Carole was smitten; she moved in with Mike and then, at 17, married him and got pregnant with a daughter. Mike turned out to be monstrously possessive; he would mark her odometer each day to make sure she wasn’t sneaking around on him. So to make extra money, Carole began breeding Persian and Himalayan show cats from home, fluffy little freaks, their faces pressed so flat they could barely breathe. For fun, she began taking in injured bobcats, which she would rehabilitate and release. She preferred them to the house cats. They were just so unpredictable, so wicked.

One night, during a particularly bad argument, Carole could tell that Mike was going to beat her again, so she threw a potato at his head and ran out of the house barefoot. She ducked between houses to evade him. She was 19 years old, with blonde hair, big blue eyes, and a big smile; people were always confusing her with “that woman on TV.” While she was walking down the road, a car pulled up alongside her and rolled down the window. Inside was a tan older man with happy eyes who was dressed in shabby clothes. He asked if she needed a ride. Carole said, “No thanks,” and he drove off. A few minutes later, he pulled up again. This time, he had a revolver lying on the passenger seat. With a rakish smile, he told her that if she didn’t trust him, she could hold his gun on him. This is interesting, Carole thought. This is not boring.

Carole got in and picked up the gun. The man drove a little while, then pulled the car over. He reached over and wrapped his hands around her neck. He said he could choke her to death if he wanted. “I know,” she said coldly, without a trace of fear. He relaxed his hands and began to massage her shoulders.

He drove her to a cheap motel. She was nervous, but he assured her that he just wanted to spend the night in her company.Sure enough, they talked for a while and then went to sleep, with her wearing a baggy pair of his pajamas. He never pressed himself on her. “I fell in love with him then and there,” she later wrote in her diary.

The man told her his name was Bob Martin. Since they were both married, they had to have their clandestine meetings in a trailer at his work site; when Bob pulled into the lot, he would make her lie down on the floor of his truck so no one would see her. She thought they were hiding from his boss, a rich businessman named Don Lewis.

Whenever she called him at work, she would ask his secretary if she could speak with Bob Martin. One day, a different secretary answered the phone. When Carole asked for Bob Martin, the secretary said she’d never heard of him. Carole described him—middle-aged, blond hair, blue eyes—and the secretary laughed. “You’re describing Don Lewis,” the secretary said. Carole realized she was having an affair with a millionaire.

Carole and Don eventually left their spouses and married each other in 1991. Soon after, they bought their first bobcat, Windsong, at an auction. Windsong was a terror. She would lie on top of the refrigerator until Don opened it, then pounce on his head. She chased Carole’s daughter through the house and bullied their pet German shepherd. Don decided that she needed a playmate, so they drove up to meet a bobcat breeder in Minnesota. When they arrived, the flies were so thick that Carole had to put a handkerchief over her mouth to keep from inhaling them. The breeder had rows of cages filled with bobcat kittens, 56 of them in total.

Carole was confused.

“Is there really this big of a market for bobcats as pets?” she asked.

“Oh, no,” he said. “We’re a fur farm. We’ll just raise them until they’re a year old and then slaughter them.” In the corner of the room, Carole noticed a pile of dead cats with their belly fur sliced off. She burst into tears.

“How much for every cat here?” Don asked.

EVERY CULTURE TELLS a different story about why it cages animals, which nearly all of them do. The stories evolve, and the cages do too. The rulers of ancient civilizations, including those of ancient Egypt and Babylon, kept vast menageries to display the extent of their empires. In ancient China, one imperial menagerie was called “the Garden of Intelligence,” where, Mencius reported, people “rejoiced” at the king’s possession of deer, fish, and turtles. During the European Enlightenment, many royal menageries were converted in the name of public education into “zoological parks,” where animals were arranged like living museum displays. In the 20th century, with the rise of the ecology and animal-rights movements, zoos were reframed as genetic arks for endangered species (plus some non threatened species like the plains zebra and hamadryas baboon, which are just fun to look at). Architects attempted to “naturalize” these environments and, not coincidentally, to help us forget about the increasingly troubling reality of animal captivity. Steel bars were replaced with “open” enclosures separated from the public by moats or thick glass.

Visitors who were accustomed to these big-city zoos were sometimes shocked, upon entering the G.W. Zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, to find row upon row of steel cages. But the naked-steel cages at the G.W. Zoo struck other visitors as refreshingly honest. After all, enclosure is a zoo’s essential quality: Children will run screaming in terror from a bee aloft, but put it under glass and they will gather round, transfixed. Joe just made the ugly truth visible.

And as he would point out, unlike glass, steel cages are porous. People can smell the animals, hear them breathe and chuff and roar. Visitors to the G.W. Zoo often got sprayed with lion urine and “bombed” with ape feces. Afterward, they proudly bought T-shirts in the gift shop that read i got peed on by a lion. It seemed to scratch some deep itch they had for close contact with wild animals—a kind of therapeutic disalienation from nature—which big zoos (and, indeed, the actual wilderness) so often fail to satisfy.

Today there are hundreds of roadside zoos like Joe’s in America—probably more than there are accredited ones. But the term “roadside zoo” is considered something of a slur in the exoticanimal world. Joe despised it. Big zoos have an ethical mission (conservation and education), and sanctuaries have one as well (caring for unwanted animals). But roadside zoos, as the name implies, have none. They are motivated purely by profit, like freak shows.

Joe made it very clear that his “park” was a sanctuary, not a zoo. (“I keep all the retards,” was how he liked to put it.) Over the years, he had discovered that a shocking number of exotic animals were living in backyards and basements all across the country, many of which had grown too large or too dangerous for their owners. The laws on big-cat ownership were, and remain, lax. All that is needed to buy a tiger cub is a USDA exhibitor’s license, which costs $40. According to some estimates, more tigers are being kept in captivity in America than are living in the wild in the entire rest of the world.

Once word got around that Joe was willing to rescue adult big cats—which most people wouldn’t because they are dangerous to handle and expensive to feed—more and more of them began pouring in. Within two years, Joe had already amassed more than a dozen. He persuaded the local Walmart to donate its expired meat, which he would feed to the cats. He also secured donations from sponsors. But it was never enough. Joe borrowed more and more money from his parents to cover the bills. Eventually, he had a profound (and profitable) realization: When faced with a caged tiger, some people keep their distance. Others instinctively lean closer. Why not let those people inside the cage?

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September 2-15, 2019