Skip to main content

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, took the world by storm in the Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Madness, and MayhemBefore the Netflix show came to be, reality television producer Rick Kirkham sought Maldonado-Passage out because he knew the life of the “Tiger King” would make for good reality television. 

In filming his reality series, Kirkham discovered the dark underworld of big cat breeding and selling in the United States — he also learned that Joe Exotic was at the epicenter. Ironically, Kirkham said the “Tiger King” had a fear of big cats.  

Joe Exotic is afraid of tigers
Joe Exotic | Netflix

Rick Kirkham explained the studio fire

Kirkham was interviewed by Extra TV, where he discussed the mysterious studio fire that caused him to lose hours worth of footage — some of which was incriminating. “Joe Exotic blamed me, he blamed Carole Baskin, he blamed a DJ in Tampa,” Kirkham explained.

In discussing what happened leading up to the arson, Kirkham shared: “Two days before the studio fire, he and I got into an argument over the fact that I had a contract with him to make the reality show and he was so upset. He made an immediate departure, said ‘I’m gone from the park for a couple of days.'” 

Kirkham also said Maldonado-Passage changed the locks on the studio so that he no longer had access, and the next thing he knew, his footage was up in flames. Had the footage been saved, Kirkham said it would have been a lot more violent than the Netflix series was. 

Rick Kirkham said Joe Exotic was ‘very scared of the tigers’

In the docuseries, Kirkham gives Maldonado-Passage the title of the “Tiger King.” Ironically enough, the owner of the G.W. Zoo was terribly afraid of big cats. 

During his Extra TV interview, Kirkham admitted that Maldonado-Passage had a certain air about him. He described how “you were lured into this surreal world of Joe Exotic,” explaining how, when Maldonado-Passage was in front of a camera, he “acted like he ran the whole world and he wasn’t scared of anything.” 

Then Kirkham dropped a bombshell — Maldonado-Passage was very scared of the tigers. “The ones he’d get in the cages with were either blind or sedated,” Kirkham said, adding:

What people don’t know — and I have the footage — is that behind that chair was the actual trainer. Those weren’t his tigers. Those were someone else’s tigers that they could control, and [the trainer] was behind there with a gun and had the tigers chained because Joe was terrified to get in cages with tigers. 

Rick Kirkham, Extra TV

According to Kirkham, Maldonado-Passage’s career as a big cat fanatic “was all just a facade,” adding he was a “very evil guy to the animals and the people” that worked for him.

Today, Maldonado-Passage sits in prison for murder-for-hire as well as violating the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act. In total, he will serve 22 years, with three years of supervised release when he gets out. 

Up Next: ‘Tiger King’: Where Are All the Tigers From the G.W. Zoo Now?