My aunt once sold a bear to Joe Exotic.
That’s a true story. So is “Tiger King,” the incredibly bizarre documentary that is sweeping the nation on Netflix.
I might be biased, but I think it is one of the most well-done documentaries out there, in terms of telling the stories of all of these crazy real-life characters, but also somehow getting all this on tape in some of the most open, honest interview settings you will see.
I grew up in Garvin County, specifically the Wynnewood area for most of my life. I drove by the sign to the G.W. Zoo every day on my way to school, (I drove 15 miles to Elmore City) and I would occasionally see Joe.
Whether it was at the local Dollar General or the Paul’s Valley Walmart – where I now know he got a lot of expired meat for his tigers – I would see his bleach blonde mullet and that unmistakable voice while he would have one of his husbands as his companion.
Turns out, one of his husbands – three of which were straight men who he kind of manipulated into a relationship – I actually went to school with. John Finlay, the shirtless dude who had about five teeth.
He graduated from Davis High School in 2003, I graduated kindergarten there in 2000 before going to Wynnewood for a few years and then Elmore City.
My mother never took me to the zoo, but around 10 years ago, one of my buddies and I went to the zoo on a slow day and got a private tour from Joe. We didn’t see anything out of the ordinary then, other than Joe that is, but that was also before his life started to really spiral downhill. Yeah, he had the PETA-hating merchandise in his shop and he was eccentric, but nothing sinister as to what he became.
Like that scene in Forrest Gump where they describe Forrest as the “local idiot,” that was Joe to us in Garvin County. He was our local idiot. I figured every county had somebody like him. Never did I ever think that one, he would run for president or governor, then become a subject of a federal investigation and finally, have a superb documentary about him become the No. 1 item on Netflix.
It was always fun to tell my college friends about him, especially when he was on John Oliver a few years ago during his presidential run and I got to tell everybody that I knew that dude. After seeing this documentary, it is less “cool” to say I know him now, but it is truly a hell of a documentary.
Directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin got so lucky in this doc. They stumbled upon this feud between Joe and Big Cat Rescue owner Carole Baskin back in the early 2010s and just hung onto the ride until it came to its spectacular conclusion where Joe ordered a hit on Baskin and was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Over the course of those seven or so years, they also interviewed the man who inspired “Scarface,” who is also a big cat owner and a creepy South Carolinan named Doc Antle, who has had his animals in Hollywood productions but also has about five wives on his compound.
You will see the new owner of the zoo, Jeff Lowe, who might be one of the lowest people you have ever met.
There are so many side characters and strange storylines that this documentary seems unreal. It is like a soap opera, but none of it is fake. Over the seven episodes, you will see Baskin’s shady past, including the untimely disappearance of one of her husbands, along with Joe seeing one of his husbands accidentally shot himself, followed by one of the most awkward funerals ever witnessed.
I know at some point, Joe might have been an alright guy. Before he added the Exotic to his name and his head got too big, he was just a guy who owned a zoo in honor of his brother who died in a car wreck. That was the Joe my aunt sold her bear to.
It is crazy that this has become a nationwide story that even Kim Kardashian West tweeted about. It is also crazy to see all these familiar spots from my youth in high-definition because Garvin County most definitely isn’t high-def. We have had two “big” names come out of there in football stars James Allen and T.J. Rushing.
Now there is a third because everyone knows about Joe Exotic, for better or worse.
My score: 100/100 (Was it going to be anything else?)
Jordan Bishop is the assistant news editor at the Stillwater News Press and can be reached at email@example.com.