Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as “Joe Exotic,” shuffled into federal court in Oklahoma City on Wednesday for sentencing, his hands and feet shackled. He wore an orange prison jumpsuit. Until his arrest in September 2018, he’d run one of the largest tiger breeding and cub-petting and photo op attractions in the U.S., sometimes putting on shows dressed as a Las Vegas-style performer.
But the man once hailed as “The Tiger King” was now subdued, haggard. There was no trace of the confident, effusive showman I’d observed during his seven-day trial last spring. On April 2, a jury convicted him on two counts of murder-for-hire and 17 wildlife charges, which we’d reported as part of a larger story examining why 5,000 to 10,000 captive tigers live in the US, who owned them—and why.
Joe Exotic wept as he pled with the judge for leniency. “I broke no laws,” he said. He claimed ill health. He said he owed his victim, Carole Baskin, an apology and then blamed her, the government, law enforcement, his employees and others for his current plight.
His face remained emotionless as Judge Scott Palk issued his sentence: 264 months, or 22 years in prison. For the 56 year-old, it’s essentially a life sentence.
Joe Exotic had tried to hire two different hitmen—an employee and an undercover FBI agent—to kill Carole Baskin, founder of the Big Cat Rescue Wildlife Sanctuary in Florida. She was his sworn enemy. Her “911 Animal Abuse” website profiled people who mass-bred tigers, separated cubs from their mothers at birth, and used them as photo props. The site rallied protests against the lucrative traveling shows that Joe Exotic staged at malls and fairs. It ruined his business, he threatened her on social media and in public—and then he tried to get her killed.
Baskin was given the chance to speak at the sentencing. “The conviction of Mr. Schreibvogel Maldonado Passage was made based upon only a handful of vivid examples of his malicious intent to murder me,” she said. “As you consider his sentence, I would just like you to take into account that if this vicious, obsessed man is ever released from jail, my life and my family’s lives, will return to what it was like during the decade leading up to his arrest.”
Each of the murder-for-hire counts carried a 108-month sentence, to be served consecutively.
The wildlife charges brought another four years in prison. Joe Exotic was convicted of killing five tigers, shooting them in the head to make room for other cats. He sold and trafficked tigers and other endangered species and falsified government documents to hide his activities in violation of federal laws.
“All of the sentences reflected the judge’s understanding of the gravity of the defendant’s conduct,” said environmental crimes prosecutor John Webb. Baskin said she was “relieved that Maldonado-Passage will be behind bars for so many years.”
In his pre-sentencing statement, Judge Palk said that Joe Exotic was “consumed, if not obsessed with silencing Carole Baskin.” He also highlighted the defendant’s ongoing lack of respect for the law: Joe Exotic had been recorded on a phone call trying to broker the sale of lion cubs while awaiting trial in Grady County Jail. The judge cited a pattern of “systematic trafficking of animals” and noted the seriousness of the wildlife crimes, which he called “significant in volume.”
Joe Exotic’s lawyers requested that he be allowed to again own wild animals after his release from prison. Judge Palk was adamant in his denial. He “has demonstrated his willingness to circumvent the regulatory statutes,” the judge said, which “ leaves zero wiggle room” that he will ever be involved in possession or care of animals again.
Over the years, Joe Exotic has attracted lots of attention: hundreds of news stories, podcasts and now, a TV series that will be produced by Saturday Night Live star Kate McKinnon. He’s an extremely colorful character who lived in the limelight for decades—he even ran for president and Oklahoma governor—and there’s irresistible film noire appeal in a murder-for-hire charge. But what Joe was doing with tigers at Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, which remains open, appears to be endemic in the cub-petting industry. (Discover the dark truth behind wildlife tourism.)
Testimony from numerous witnesses during Joe Exotic’s trial revealed that selling and trafficking tigers and other endangered species, falsifying government documents, money laundering, tax evasion and other criminal activity may be occurring at numerous other venues. During the sentencing hearing, defense lawyer William Earley noted “I think there’s plenty of evidence that others were involved in similar violations of the law.” In our earlier reporting, we mapped a nationwide US tiger trade network.
Lax laws and limited government oversight have allowed these businesses to thrive despite years of repeated violations for abuse, neglect and potential danger to animals and the public. Very few have lost their U.S. Department of Agriculture exhibitor’s licenses. “The USDA should have shut down Joe Exotic’s business two decades ago,” said Brittany Peet, director of captive animal law enforcement at the PETA Foundation. “He may be the first captive-animal abuser to go to prison for killing and trafficking in captive big cats, but he shouldn’t be the last, and PETA is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to finish what they started with Joe Exotic by taking on the U.S. captive tiger trafficking network and shutting it down once and for all."
While he wasn’t criminally charged with animal abuse, Joe Exotic’s treatment of animals brought him scrutiny from many involved in animal welfare. Back in 2011, an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the U.S. found tigers and other species “caged in barren conditions, punched, dragged and beaten as ‘training,’ and bred to provide infant animals for public photo shoots and then offloaded when they were no longer useful,” said Kitty Block, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. Year after year, he was cited by USDA for violations of federal Animal Welfare Act standards.
The landscape may be changing around this issue. In the last days of December, the U.S. House of Representatives gained enough sponsors to move forward with The Big Cat Public Safety Act. The U.S. currently has no federal law governing big cat ownership, though these predators can weigh up to 500 pounds and may reach 10 feet long. This bill would prohibit ownership of big cats as pets and outlaw hands-on contact with cubs. Newly-introduced state laws in Virginia and Oklahoma would also make public contact illegal.
A few of the largest cub-handling attractions are being investigated or face lawsuits involving endangered big cat species. In December, Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina was raided as part of an investigation into possible lion trafficking. Florida’s Dade City Wild Things, which once allowed visitors to swim with cubs, is amidst a lawsuit alleging that its practice of pulling cubs from their mothers at birth, forcing them to interact with the public and housing them in small cages violates the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Wildlife In Need in Indiana is under an injunction barring it from prematurely separating mothers and cubs as part of a pending lawsuit. A court order in that case established that declawing endangered or threatened exotic cats to make public contact easier—without medical necessity—violates the ESA.
There has been growing public protest over itinerant tiger exhibits and performing acts at state and county fairs. In October, California banned the use of wild animals in circuses.
The situation in the U.S. has also sparked international scrutiny. The U.S. is one of six nations under investigation for possible tiger trafficking by the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a treaty signed by 183 nations regulating that trade. The U.S. is a signatory.
Phillip Land, special agent in charge at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says that his agency will continue to “vigorously investigate wildlife crime,” adding that “I hope the sentence received by Joe Maldonado-Passage will be a strong deterrent to others.”