The Truth About Joe Exotic And Travis Maldonado's Relationship

Many aspects of the life of Joe Exotic (born Joe Schreibvogel), former owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park of Wynnewood, Oklahoma, captured viewers' attention when the Netflix series "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness" premiered in March 2020. One was his double marriage to two men much younger than himself. As reported by Texas Monthly, 19-year-old Travis Maldonado arrived in Wynnewood in December of 2013 from his home in California. He was in recovery from an addiction to methamphetamine. One of Exotic's employees recommended hiring Maldonado, hoping that working with the tigers and other animals would benefit Maldonado's health.

Not much is publicly known about Maldonado's life before he met Exotic. Still, Showbiz CheatSheet writes that social media posts by his siblings are fond, affectionate, and devastated by his early death.

When Maldonado arrived at the animal park, Exotic was already in a long-term relationship. John Finlay, Exotic's boyfriend, had arrived at the park as a 19-year-old in 2003. Within a month of Maldonado's arrival, the three men were unofficially married. The three-way ceremony took place at a dance hall across from the park. Attendants included monkey flower girls, a Celebes crested macaque ring bearer, and the three grooms dressed in matching pink shirts and black pants. At the time, Exotic was 32 years older than Maldonado and had been married two times before. According to Digital Spy, Exotic had a pattern of power imbalances in his relationships, providing spouses with necessities like money, work, and housing.

Travis Maldonado reportedly had relationships with other park employees

In the fifth episode of Netflix's docuseries "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness" (the trailer is posted on YouTube), viewers learned that both Travis Maldonado and John Finlay identified as straight outside of their relationships with Joe Exotic (via Evening Standard). Maldonado reportedly openly had affairs with women when he was with Exotic. At one point in the series, Exotic says on camera, "I fell in love with straight guys." Nevertheless, per Texas Monthly, by June of 2015, Maldonado and Exotic had legally wed. Joe took Maldonado's last name as his own. Showbiz CheatSheet states that the move from an unofficial three-person marriage to a legal two-person occurred because the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationally that year.

Things eventually soured between Finlay and Exotic; Finlay found Exotic controlling and obsessed with his web series. (The Joe Exotic TV channel is also on YouTube.) On August 14, 2018, Finlay attacked Exotic in a parking lot and was arrested and charged with assault and battery. Per Digital Spy, Finlay later left with fellow park employee Stormey Sanders, the zoo's secretary, with whom he had a child. Eventually, Finlay and Sanders married. Finlay also reportedly had a tattoo removed which read, "Privately owned by Joe Exotic."

Throughout his years with Joe Exotic, Maldonado began using drugs. The Netflix series documents his downward spiral that would ultimately result in his death. According to the Evening Standard, at one point, Maldonado had a breakdown, kicking one of the animal park vehicles.

Travis Maldonado's accidental death

Two years later, Maldonado died from a self-inflicted gunshot. According to Joe, the shooting was an accident. On October 6, 2017, Maldonado showed off a Ruger pistol to the park's gift shop employees, including Exotic's campaign manager Joshua Dial (via Cinemaholic). Despite Dial's protests, Maldonado reportedly attempted to prove something he read online, says Evening Standard. He removed the gun's magazine and held it to his head, believing that it wouldn't fire, knowing there was a bullet in the chamber. The gun did fire, and Maldonado died before medics arrived. He was 23 years old (per Cinemaholic). Exotic held a press conference at the park and called Maldonado's death a "tragic accident." He also held a memorial service at the park, filming it for his YouTube channel, Joe Exotic TV, where it is still available.

Travis Maldonado's living relatives include his father, mother, and two sisters, reports Cinemaholic. His mother, Cheryl, was a guest at the wedding. She reportedly expected to be one of many attendees and was shocked to find herself just one of three witnesses. His obituary is relatively brief and impersonal, with lines like, "The life, the love, the smiles that someone brings to you is what is the most important thing this earth can ever give you."

According to the Evening Standard, Exotic met a man named Dillon Passage and married him just a few months later. However, the Cinemaholic reports that Exotic was still mourning Maldonado at the start of the relationship with Passage.