During the pandemic of 2020 a vast majority of the world found itself fascinated by the story of The Tiger King. The creator of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park is now residing at the Fort Worth Federal Medical Center. Before becoming one of the most well-known tiger breeders in the United States Joseph Maldonado-Passage worked his way up to chief of the Eastvale Texas Police Department. He later went on to run for President of the United States in 2016 and Governor of Oklahoma in 2018. Following the success of the documentary series on Netflix most everyone featured therein have had the chance to express their point of view as they see fit though not much has been said by Joe Exotic himself on the matter.
It is my belief that everyone deserves the chance to tell their story, in their own words, from their point of view. I offer up this interview in support of that belief. The following is from Joe written June 5, 2020. Many thanks to Joe and his legal team for giving me this chance, with the understanding that no profit will ever be made from it. It is an honor to have had the chance to help bring this story to light. Thank you all.
Can you tell us a little about your family? What was it like growing up with your parents and siblings? What were each of them like as people? What do you think is the most important thing you learned from each of them?
Wow, growing up with my family, I spent most of my childhood on farm in Garden City, Kansas. Born as slaves, to work in the fields, not very many memories worth keeping as a child because most are horrible but engrained in my memory forever, like being molested by my oldest brother about 5 years old in the bathroom of our old farmhouse, and to be made to kneel with your arms straight out for punishment and beat with a wooden slat if your arms came down, to watch your dad, mom, oldest brother fist fighting and hitting each other with chairs. Growing up dad was a very mean man and anything that went wrong was your fault.
Now I ain’t saying I never done anything wrong, I set the back field on fire once playing with matches, but the physical and mental abuse was something that I carry with me to this day.
You were particularly close to your brother Garold. Can you tell us a little more about him? What are some of your most fond memories of him? What do you think he would have thought of The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park? Did it help you feel closer to him in some way?
My brother Garold who died, always said he was going to break that cycle with his kids and he did. He was the best dad, and the only sibling who ever just accepted me as a kid and as an adult. My oldest sister ran away from home and was with a guy who she ended up marrying who overdosed on heroin and died.
I never really spent much time with my younger sister, but me and Garold spent most of our teenage years riding horses in the mountains when we moved to Wyoming. That is where my love for weird animals came in. We had pet raccoons, porcupines and my little sister found an orphan baby antelope.
But my animal hobby started in grade school when I brought home the schools white mice for the summer and ended up with hundreds of white mice and we went around different farmers barns at night and caught pigeons to raise and show off for 4-H. At one time we had around 500 pigeons.
Around 1979 we moved to Pilot Point, Texas because dad was raising race horses. Garold got married and put a trailer house on the same ranch because he said mom and dad would never go to a nursing home.
I worked at the The Sundial nursing home with mom and became an E.M.T and worked on the Pilot Point Ambulance at 18 years old. Graduated High School in ‘82 and applied for a job as a police officer in Eastvale, TX and the city council said I looked too young to work on the street so I offered them a deal I would work 6 months for free if they gave me a chance. I graduated the Police Academy as the youngest chief in Texas history. In 1985 my oldest brother told my dad I was gay and my dad was standing in the front door of his house screaming so bad the spit was hitting my face and my mom was standing behind him crying. As my dad made me shake his hand and promise not to come to his funeral, so on my way back to the house where I lived, I drove my police car into a bridge. I spent the next 3 years in braces after 57 days in traction in the hospital.
After a year in Florida Garold and mom came to Florida to move me back to Texas, at this time I had about 45 parrots and on the way to Texas we stopped on the side of the road to check the bird and I fell off the side of the stock trailer and broke my arm and crushed my shoulder. They took me to the hospital in Mobile, AL and they wanted to put in over 200 pins, mom said no so they transferred me to OKC to the Bone and Joint Institute where they healed me without surgery.
Then mom and dad helped me get a trailer house in Arlington, Texas, where I got a job at a Pet Safari with Sandy and Stanton Kizer. They offered to sell it to me and Garold and finance it for us. It was 1400 sq ft store for $15,000 and $5,000 down. So me and Garold went into business and I met and married Brian Rhyne.
We worked every day together and Garold was then living on mom and dad’s ranch in Springer, Oklahoma and drove to Arlington to work, and stayed at our house 2 days a week.
He built the cat furniture, dog houses, and reptile cages we sold and he sold that stuff to almost every pet store in DFW.
My older sister moved from Florida to Arlington and stayed about a year and wanted to go back to Florida and everything was always about saving money. So dad talked Garold into driving her to Florida with her stuff. He stayed the night at our house and the next morning in my front yard he shook my hand and said, “If something happens there is enough money in CD’s to take care of Lois and the boys.”
About 6 p.m. that night the phone rang, mom saying that he and my sister were in a bad wreck and they were on the way to pick me up, we got to the hospital in Corsicana, Texas and he got out of surgery from removing his spleen. Both legs, his back and neck were broken and his head injury was so bad his eyes were bulged out of the sockets, he was awake but on a ventilator and scared as hell, he knew he was gonna die, they put him in a drug induced coma, and for 7 days I tried to get him transferred but every time I got it set up the doctor would tell the receiving hospital he was brain dead. I would not accept that, so I made a deal with Baylor, if they would come get him and prove to me he was dead I would donate his organs, when they rolled him out of the hospital to the helicopter huge globs of spiderwebs fell from the sky all over the helicopter, like at that moment he went to Heaven. So Baylor kept their word and so did I. My brother saved 4 other people and I got to meet the man who got his heart.
My brother was my hero, when we had the pet store people gave me a hard time so he painted the pole of the sign by Fielder Road the color of the gay flag and said, “Fuck em, you’re my brother and if they don’t like it they can deal with me.”
Garold was the only one who had anything to do with me. I have not spoken to the others since his funeral in 1997.
Me and Brian sold the store and put our money in with mom and dad to build a memorial park in honor of Garold. He always wanted to go to the jungle where the native people with bone in their noses lived, so it seemed the right thing to do.
Brian got sick in 1996 and contacted fungal pneumonia and went through a long battle of treatments and being sick. When we got the zoo started his health went downhill and I had hospice helping me with him while I built the zoo with mom and dad.
One night before Christmas of 2001 his pain was so bad I couldn’t stop it and he had quit talking days before so I called an ambulance to take him to Norman, OK to the hospital. The E.R doctor told me if they give him a shot it would kill him. It was like taking your dog to be euthanized, what could I do but tell them to give him the shot? His cousin was with me and they admitted him in the hospital so I went home and Amanda stayed with Brian. She called me the next morning and said they were releasing him. So I went to go get them.
And when I rolled him out of the E.R and pick him up to put him in the car he took his last breath. My heart just died, again.
The hospital would not let us back in with a dead body on hospice so I had to sit with a sheet over him in the parking lot waiting for a funeral home to come get him.
I had his funeral at the zoo.
Over the years people built cages as memorials of loved ones so animals could live for people’s memories. Mom and dad spent every day there telling their story to people who lost a child or loved one. It helped everyone.
Why do you think it is important to honor the memory of our loved ones?
My dad turned out to be my biggest fan in the world. He was so proud of what we did in Garold’s memory. Then jealousy hit my oldest brother, for years he blackmailed my mom to tell my dad that I donated Garold’s organs and in 2016 he held good to his threat and told dad.
By this time dad’s mental health was going downhill and I set all night with dad as he cried that we cut Garold apart. But after hours of talking he came to understand he saved 4 people even while dying himself. He died a hero.
Magic was the only way to get people’s attention to the message. People are tired of being preached at.
You honor those who die. You respect their memory. What changed me was when Travis died. I begged for a sign he made it to Heaven and out of nowhere the word, “Hi” appeared in the sky. It is on my Facebook. I got a picture of it.
You often helped children with various disabilities experience the wonders of nature via the Park. What was it like to be able to offer the chance to interact with the animals in such a way?
We never charged anyone who was sick to come to the zoo and I sit by the hospital beds of those who were dying with a baby tiger to only grant their last wish. People don’t stop and think people with Downs Syndrome or blind, etc. live in such a dark world for a life time and bringing joy and a smile to them is what Garold stood for.
I worked the next 18 years for my brother , people worldwide new who he was and were so proud to become part of it.
I toured the nation doing magic and singing the songs I wrote to millions of kids and adults, about saving or environment and not to bully others, and it worked. To this day people are writing me letters of support that seen a show in their town.
What are your feelings on the series? How do you feel about how the media has distorted your love of animals?
The media and the animal rights make me out as an animal abuser because it makes them money from people who don’t know better or do their own research. Just like Carole made millions but keeps her animals in small, rusty cages. It is all a scam. I’m not in jail for animal cruelty. It was for “taking” an endangered species that was born in my own zoo.
I have never been charged with animal cruelty. As you see my tigers love me and if you abuse a tiger you will not go in the same cage with it and live to tell about it
I had mixed feelings about the documentary because I had no idea what angle they were gonna take but I don’t think they expected the world to see I’m honest, hard working, and proud of everything I done, right and wrong, my videos of real life on Youtube helped people understand the real me.
What I am disappointed about is how everyone now who turned their back on me wants to make a buck and become a movie star. Look what it has even done to my husband Dillon, he is so busy being famous he has not wrote one letter to see how I’m doing, but during my trial he was so ashamed of me he wouldn’t come to the trial because he didn’t want in the press.
This has went to peoples heads. This was my life. This was my parent’s lives, this was the memory of 152 other people and it has turned into who can make a buck. Before meeting me who was Dillon? Jeff Lowe? Eric Cowie? Rick Kirkham? John Finlay? They were all people with nowhere to go that Joe gave them a chance and now where are they?
While Joe sets in prison fighting for the truth and his life, they are all movie stars at parties and having a time of their lives.
I feel so used and abandoned by everyone and I never in a million years expected this from my own husband. To be just forgotten over a little fame and money, which by the way not one dime taken in by anyone has been sent or spent on my lawyers. So please quit giving money to anyone’s Go Fund Me or Paypal because they are NOT taking care of my needs.
I lay here locked down, alone 24/7 in this tiny room with no phone, no email or commissary, counting my heartbeats, begging God to just grant me a heart attack so I don’t have to live in this Hell everyone put me in. And they can’t even take 10 minutes and send a letter of support but can be famous beaus they either were or are married to me or worked for me at some point. But now its to leave Joe Exotic in a prison room like a dog in a shelter. They should be ashamed.
There has been tens of thousands of dollars raised, paid, and spent on good times while Joe has nothing. My fans send me more letters of support.
How have you changed most since your earlier days?
Someone answer me one question, how can a person claim to love and care about someone and use every bit of money on themselves while you use the fame of that person to be popular to the point you can’t write a letter or even show enough respect to wear a wedding ring?
I’ve gotten letters saying I said it was ok to move on? The Hell with that, those words are not in my vocabulary, “Till death do us part” was the vows I took, “for better or worse” was what I heard. What I receive in the mail from people saying Dillon has moved on killed my soul. I have lost all hope. To be stabbed in the back once again and by my very own husband if this is all true…
But you know, fame goes as fast as it comes and I can only pray that he slows down and realizes that this won’t last forever. If it lasts 6 months and people will turn on fake public figures like wild dogs. I can say if I give up it will be Dillon’s fault. If I get lucky enough to get a pardon or win my appeal look the Hell out because we are going to change this system. But I love that man enough I took a job in Florida washing dishes for $10.50 an hour to make that man happy, and all I want is some support and a husband that don’t have to take his wedding ring off to go party with the boys while I’m fighting for my life. Move on? Not a chance, who does that? Who says that?
That’s what I’ve learned through this and my life that has changed me. You honor your word, you hold true to your vows, and you never leave a man down, or behind.
What would you like the world to know in regards to you as a person? Is there anything in particular you would like the world to know about you as an individual?
I’m a man with a heart, with feelings and I’m a man who can and does hurt by all of this.
This has really opened my eyes to how one nation and these politicians can lock people away and treat them worse than what we as Humans require animals in a zoo. And how fast people can forget you when you’re out of sight out of mind.
Right now I feel like the most famous homeless man there is. Am I married? Do I have a husband? And do I have a home if I beat this?
What do you plan on doing when you are released and free? Do you look forward to showing others that there is always a chance to turn things around for the better?
When and if I get out of this alive I want to be the first to combine comedy/music/magic in one concert and tour the world, and use that money to save people all over from starvation and homelessness, save our rainforests for the animals that need it, and advocate for people in jail and prison against the corruption in our justice system, to end the abuse in jail and hold prosecutors and agents accountable for perjury just to win a case for self gain.
The millions of people around the world see in my uncut videos who I am as a person, a man that would take anyone in and give the shirt off my back, a man that can see when someone is in a dark place and give up part of me to lift them up. A man you might be shocked by but a man who will tell you like it is and never lie to you to your face or behind your back. A man who opened his zoo and his heart to Jeff, Lauren, James, Allen, Eric, and many more just to be taken advantage of. A man who fought for a decade for Don Lewis and his family. A man who fell in love with a man named Dillon Passage and a man that was proud enough to take his last name. I’m a man praying to God he does not abandon me and move on while I live in this Hell.
How are you holding up under your current circumstances?
How am I holding up? I only wish right now to die because being used and unloved is the worse thing I fear in this life. To hear the words I love you is my drug of choice. We get one shot at this and it can end at any moment, does not matter in a mass shooting or a car accident, those unspoken words will haunt you forever. So be faithful if you are going to make a commitment, people’s hearts are not your games. You can cause heartache, misery, and even suicide because you’re playing games with someone’s life.
What has this done for me? The thousands of letters I get from 4 year olds to 89 year olds, people of all sexes, races, and styles with their phone numbers to a complete stranger offering support, and some looking for support that have tried killing themselves or hurting, but it shows we are all people who really want the same thing, to be loved, to get along, and to support one another.
I don’t give a rats ass about fame or money. I would give it all up to be home with Dillon. Hell I gave it up to move to Florida to start a life with Dillon as Joseph Passage, that was on my application to get that job. But now I beg just to be noticed by him enough he can be my husband, wear a ring in support and help me get through this. Am I asking too much?
What are your feelings on life and death and what comes after? How do you hope to be remembered when your time comes?
I’m gonna combine some of the last all in one answer, Death can come to anyone at any time. I’ve experienced more than most, there is an afterlife. Travis showed me beyond any doubt. No one honors commitment these days, because it is too easy to just move on to the next until you wake up alone and you’ve trashed what meant something.
My brother taught me one thing, your respect you have earned from you keeping your word is all you leave when you die and all you take to get to Heaven. And Karma is real. Its God’s way of making things right, big or small.
I want people to remember me as a man that tried to make a difference in the way people treat each other, for the good I did and tried to do, and for the love I poured into everything I’ve done, and for always honoring my word.
Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
You know I’ve made mistakes, and I have lived this hard life I was dealt to the best of my ability. Its been a hard road and I pray I don’t die in here an innocent man. Two things I wish from the people of the world:
Keep asking our President to make this right and grant me a pardon so we can move on from this and help the people of our nation and the world together.
And for you all to be my voice to Dillon to just slow down, be supportive, and don’t let this ruin his life by throwing away someone that will love and forgive him forever. The party will be there in 6 months and it will be much larger when I walk out of here. So please don’t abandon me in here when I need him the most.
Be safe, Be my voice, Hear my cry for help.
Love to you all,
(Author’s note: On July 6, 2020 I received a note from Joe stating that now he has a phone he can speak to Dillon twice a day, who assures him their marriage is going to be, ok. Dillon has also stated that he wants no part of the press or anything, and when Joe gets home he wants his animals and that is it. )
Joe & Garold
To see the actual letters as they were sent please see:
Joe Exotic handwritten to Tina Faye Ayres, June 05, 2020