Tragic Details About The Tiger King Cast

At this point, we've seen two seasons of Netflix's "Tiger King," and while it's still far from clear whether we'll be seeing a "Tiger King 3" someday, the story of Joseph "Joe Exotic" Maldonado-Passage, imprisoned former operator of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (aka the G.W. Zoo), continues to captivate people to a certain degree. That said, "Tiger King 2" didn't exactly set the world on fire after it dropped on Netflix on November 17. Not only is it considerably shorter at just five episodes; sites such as IGN have noted that there isn't as much focus on the animals and their poor living conditions as there is on the many unusual (read: oftentimes shady) characters whose lives were showcased in the two seasons of the docu-series thus far.

Yes, there is a real possibility that "Tiger King"-mania will soon become a thing of the past, a relic of a time when people around the world had no choice but to stay home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. But before the show joins the ever-growing list of trends that have fallen out of fashion, we should keep in mind that Exotic and many of his colleagues, rivals, and former romantic partners featured on both seasons of "Tiger King" haven't had easy lives. 

Joe Exotic's family drama and recent health issues

Regardless of how you feel about Joe Exotic, his anti-Carole Baskin shenanigans, his treatment of big cats, and his current prison sentence, it's hard to argue with the point that he had it rough while growing up. Born Joseph Schreibvogel in Kansas and raised mostly in Texas, the future "Tiger King" star knew he was gay at a young age, and when he came out to his family, he was effectively disowned by his father, as he discussed in the very first episode of the docu-series, the aptly named "Not Your Average Joe." Exotic was so despondent over the estrangement that he drove his car off a bridge in an attempt to take his own life. He also lost one of his older brothers, Garold Wayne "G.W." Schreibvogel, when he died in a car accident in 1997 — when Exotic opened his animal park, he initially named it after his late brother.

As we learned in "Tiger King 2," Exotic's surviving older brother, Yarri Schreibvogel, has no love lost for him. While the two brothers have both accused their father of being physically and emotionally abusive while they were growing up, Yarri and Joe have been estranged for decades over a variety of reasons, including Yarri's claim that Joe conned their parents into giving him the $250,000 worth of insurance money from G.W.'s death in order for him to open his zoo. It's also been rumored that Joe fell out with Yarri after the latter outed him as gay to their parents.

More recently, Joe Exotic's time in prison for allegedly plotting to murder Baskin has seen his health issues grow progressively worse. According to a November 21 report from People, Exotic was moved to a North Carolina medical facility in the aftermath of his "aggressive" prostate cancer diagnosis earlier this month.

Saff lost his arm after being attacked by a tiger

One of the breakout stars of the original "Tiger King," so to say, was Saff Saffery, the former G.W. Zoo animal keeper who, like many of his ex-colleagues, spoke candidly about his experience working alongside Joe Exotic and his many big cats. Arguably, the moment that caught the most attention in Season 1 of the docu-series was the one where Saffery was seriously injured after he was attacked by a 600-pound tiger, resulting in the amputation of his arm. It was a scene that was truly hard to watch, and it wasn't the only issue Saff had to deal with on the show, but during the special 8th episode of the OG "Tiger King," the ex-G.W. Zoo employee seemed magnanimous about it all.

"We did have to obviously move him so his life did change drastically in that sense," Saffery explained, as quoted by Refinery29, stressing that he felt more sympathy for the tiger that attacked him than for Exotic. However, he did mention that he doesn't want Exotic to die in prison, given how his former boss did have some big-hearted moments. As for the fact that Saffery, who identifies as male, was frequently referred to by female pronouns on the docu-series, he said that he doesn't think "it bothered me as much as it bothered everyone else."

Saff isn't the only "Tiger King" cast member who lost an appendage, as former G.W. Zoo manager John Reinke lost both of his original legs after a zip line accident, according to Mirror.

Multiple Tiger King stars have died since the 1st season dropped

In the 20 months since "Tiger King" first dropped on Netflix and became must-see programming during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been two notable individuals who appeared on the original docu-series who have died. The first of these was Erik Cowie, the former head zookeeper at the G.W. Zoo who remained at the animal park even after Jeff and Lauren Lowe took it over from Joe Exotic. In September 2020, WDSU reported that Cowie was seemingly having trouble handling his sudden celebrity status, as he simply wanted to focus on his work taking care of the big cats. 

Cowie was found dead on September 3, 2021, in a Brooklyn apartment, and his cause of death was confirmed one month later as being due to acute and chronic alcohol use (via Variety). Just four months prior, the 53-year-old allegedly failed to show up in court after he was charged with driving under the influence in Oklahoma. "Tiger King 2" was dedicated to Cowie's memory.

Although he wasn't featured as prominently as Cowie, reptile dealer Jeff Johnson had some recall from the 1st season of "Tiger King," specifically during Episode 4, where he weighed in on the issues between Exotic and Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin. According to Deadline, Johnson died by suicide on September 8 after an argument with his wife — his cause of death, as well as the news of his passing, was only reported more than two months after the fact. He was 58 years old.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Doc Antle and his alleged 'harem of wives'

Bhagavan "Doc" Antle was one of the more controversial secondary figures featured on the 1st season of "Tiger King." What set Antle's big cat park apart from the others was how he employed several younger women who, as part of their job description, entertained visitors and took care of the animals while wearing outfits that some may consider revealing. These women were loosely referred to as his "wives," and in Season 1, Episode 2 of "Tiger King," one of Antle's former employees, Barbara Fisher, opened up on his allegedly controlling nature. During her appearance, Fisher talked about how Antle would imply that the women who worked for him needed to sleep with him if they wanted to rise up the ranks. She also revealed the substandard pay and living conditions (e.g. sleeping in roach-infested horse stalls) she and the other ladies supposedly had to deal with. 

According to Fisher, "[Antle's] touch brings them up to his level of enlightenment" –  a very creepy thing for a middle-aged zookeeper-slash-self-styled-guru to purportedly tell any young woman. However, he denied the claims that he has a "harem of wives" in an interview with "I am a guy that does date," he explained, as quoted by Cosmopolitan. "I live alone in my house. I have a few girlfriends now and they certainly know about each other, but I am by no means married to anybody or have a harem like they are suggesting."

Carole Baskin's troubled first marriage was briefly discussed in Season 1

When the words "Carole Baskin" and "husband" are mentioned in the same sentence, people immediately think of Don Lewis and the claims that she murdered him and fed him to her big cats — accusations that were explored in both seasons of "Tiger King," as well as Joe Exotic's meme-worthy country banger "Here Kitty Kitty." (It may not be Exotic's actual singing voice, and the claims are unproven, but let's be real — it is a catchy tune.) People may also think of Carole's current husband, Howard Baskin, and their bizarre wedding photos. But as Carole herself explained in Season 1, Episode 3, she was married to a man named Michael Murdock before she settled down with Lewis. There's also the matter of how she was raped at the age of 14 — and the victim-blaming from her conservative family that led her to leave home at 15.

Baskin didn't go into great detail about her marriage to Murdock, except that he was allegedly an "extremely abusive man," and that they had a daughter named Jamie. The abuse got so bad that in a letter she wrote to Don Lewis' first wife, she admitted that she had reached the point where she might have had to kill Murdock to get out of the marriage (via TMZ). She did, however, tell the outlet that she only meant those words "in the context of self-defense."

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

Many of the men in Joe Exotic's life have/had tragic stories

No discussion about tragic details in the lives of "Tiger King" cast members can be complete without a mention of the men Joe Exotic dated or was married to. For starters, Exotic was in a relationship with Brian Rhyne, who was not featured in Season 1 but was talked about at length in the 1st episode of "Tiger King 2." Exotic and Rhyne had a 15-year relationship, which started in 1986 when Rhyne was a college student and ended in 2001 when he died of complications from HIV. Speaking to The Daily Beast, Exotic's niece Chealsi Putnam revealed that her uncle was "never the same again ... as far as the way he even did business" after Rhyne's death.

In the 1st season, viewers got to know John Finlay and Travis Maldonado, the former of whom was interviewed extensively about his unusual relationship with Exotic; he also made references to his past drug use and how it negatively impacted his life. Finlay, who complained to People about being portrayed on "Tiger King" as a "drugged-out hillbilly," was six years sober as of April 2020. Similarly, drugs were a key part of Maldonado's relationship with (and later on, marriage to) Exotic, and he died in 2017 after accidentally shooting himself. Joshua Dial, who managed Exotic's failed gubernatorial campaign, witnessed the shooting and told People in 2020 that he "definitely" has PTSD due to what happened.