In the Hall of the Tiger King

It all started with a last minute party invitation. My friend Deb was hosting a Tiger King themed get-together for her birthday party. The reality show was at the height of its popularity and party goers were asked to dress like a character from the show. Hmmmm…..what to wear? Years of being a performer has filled my closet with animal print shirts and jackets that would make Siegfried and Roy envious. I looked at my shirts and asked myself what would Joe Exotic wear? After selecting the wildest one, a gun holster, some eye makeup, handcuffs dangling off a belt loop and a black cowboy hat was all I needed to channel Joe at his most exotic. My costume was a hit!

Dressed as “Bill Exotic” for a party with a Photoshopped Tiger Photo: Bill Wiatrak

As I took photos with my friends at the party and posted them on Facebook, I got a lot of positive comments and even a few invitations to be Joe at some upcoming parties. I started to wonder how well I’d be received if I visited the actual zoo from the Netflix show wearing my costume. The only one way to find out, is to just do it. I saw a good opportunity to visit and make a few other stops on my way to Oklahoma.

Posing Near the Zoo Entrance Photo: Bill Wiatrak

The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park is about 2 hours north of Dallas in Oklahoma. As I got closer I started wondering what this place would be like. Would there be mobs of tourists? Would I recognize anyone there that I’d seen on the show? I had several tiger shirts with me, but I as I got closer, I decided that going “full-Joe” might be a mistake. I was right. I learned later how unpopular Joe really is.

There’s Always News at Tiger King Park Photo: Bill Wiatrak

There appeared to be just a few visitors, but I had arrived early. I approached the cashier and told her I was a journalist and was planning on taking a few photos and wondered if I might be granted an interview with the owner of the park, Jeff Lowe. It was immediately obvious that the park management was not very trusting of the press. I heard myself being described on a worker’s walkie-talkie as soon as I walked into the zoo. There wasn’t a chance in hell they were comping my entry ticket. I probably should have kept my mouth shut and traveled incognito but there wasn’t much of a chance of that with a tiger shirt on. Joe ruined that like Charlie Sheen ruined bowling shirts.

A Tiger Resting after a Hard Day of Doing Tiger Things Photo: Bill Wiatrak

The park has a lot more animals than just tigers, but there all lots of big cats. Camels, lions and even giant tortoises are scattered throughout the park. As I snapped a few photos, a news truck suddenly appeared with a cameraman and an interviewer. Jeff and Lauren sat down with the TV station and started discussing what would be the biggest news of reality shows that day. The will of Carole Baskin’s missing husband had been forged. Meanwhile, a helicopter buzzed overheard. According to one of the workers, Joe had arranged helicopter visits from his prison cell through his attorney. The reality show was continuing even though the season was over.

Erik Feeding Some Baby Tigers Photo: Bill Wiatrak

We were waiting for a tour guide to show us around and as luck would have it, a thin guy with long blonde hair showed up to pinch hit for the regular guide. It was none other than Erik Kowie, one of the main characters on the show. Could this get any better? Erik made it clear that he was not okay with being filmed or photographed.He had seen all the negative memes he could handle and explained that not only did Googling himself made him angry, his mixed stardom had created problems in his relationships. according to Erik, Netflix had paid hardly anything to the people in the show and their lives had all been disrupted and changed forever. But what about Joe? It appeared that no one at the zoo really cared for the self-proclaimed Tiger King, aka Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage. Erik explained that Joe couldn’t tell one tiger from the other and that several of the tigers didn’t even like him. In the show where Joe got mauled, Erik indicated that one tiger had been purposely replaced by a less friendly one to teach Joe a lesson for being mean to the staff. There hadn’t been any need to to spray cologne on his shoe as Joe had claimed or sardine oil as Carole had mused. As we walked by the various cages, the tigers came to greet Erik and it was suddenly clear who the real Tiger King was. These menacing giant cats suddenly started acting like little kitties when he’d get near. There was no doubt that Erik was an animal person and would much rather be hanging out with his felines than dealing with TV people.

Camel Kissing Photo: Bill Wiatrak

The tour was quite interesting. After meeting some of the friendlier cats, we got to see some baby tigers, pet a few small animals and watch Erik feed the tigers. Each visitor got to do a “camel kissing” photo if they chose, hold a skunk, handle an exotic lizard….you know, the kind of stuff that your mom never let you do when you were a kid. They even showed us a couple ligers. A liger is a hybrid cat that comes from mating a lion and a tiger together. Weird, but true as well as being Napoleon Dynamite’s favorite animal.

Turtles Sharing Lettuce Photo: Bill Wiatrak

I decided to break the ice and let Jeff and Lauren know I wasn’t some Netflix spy or Tiger King wannabe on Joe’s payroll. I’ve got a long history of going to exotic countries to see tigers in the wild with no luck. I’ve traveled on the backs of elephants on tiger safaris in Nepal, scoured watering holes in India for the elusive beasts and navigated the Sundarban mangrove swamps in Bangladesh trying to spot a famous Bengal man-eating tiger. Seeing them in cages in Oklahoma isn’t quite the same, but they seemed happy enough and I’m all about preserving the disappearing exotic animals of the world, even in Oklahoma. Once I spoke with Jeff, everyone relaxed and he agreed to do a short interview with me at the end of my visit. How dangerous can a travel writer be anyway?

Jeff and Lauren Lowe, Posing with Me Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Allen Glover, the alleged “hit-man” from the series showed up and looked exactly how I expected. Put it this way. I wouldn’t want him mad at me. I took pictures with everyone and chatted with Jeff and Lauren a little bit about the future. Out of all the players in the reality show, they seem to be on the best road possible. They own the Tiger King brand and if Duck Dynasty is any indication of what can be done with branding, they’ll do alright. The big news was that had been that Carole Baskin had been awarded the park because Joe had illegally signed it over to his mother to keep her from getting it when she won the one million dollar lawsuit. In truth, Carole gets the land, but not the tigers.

Winstar, the Biggest Casino in the World. Photo: Bill Wiatrak

The Lowes are happy to leave the old cages behind. They’ve been building state of the art new cages in Thackerville and they’ve changed the name to Tiger King Zoo. The new property is 83 acres, compared to the 17 acre property that Carole is getting. The biggest advantage of the move is that the new place is near the Winstar casino, the largest casino in the world. Yes, believe it or not, Oklahoma has the largest casino on the planet. That’s got to be a better location to catch gamblers looking for a break or something else to do besides blackjack. Netflix approached the zoo for a second season and were sent packing. The Lowe’s have bigger fish to fry. Who knows? Maybe someone will come up with a Tiger King slot machine.

Meanwhile Joe has about 22 more years in jail, Carole has yet to reopen her Tampa location and Nicholas Cage has signed on to play Joe in the Tiger King movie. The saga continues.

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