The story of Joe Exotic has captivated a nation on lockdown, with many Americans finding ample time for binge-watching Netflix. For some in North Texas, the buzzworthy Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is bringing back memories of their own encounters with the show’s eccentric subject.
JT Barnett worked as a Dallas-based producer on Cheaters for nine years. But in 2013, he was putting together a pilot for a reality show about Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic. Some of the footage included in Netflix’s new docuseries on Exotic was shot by Barnett, including a scene that captures a tiger mauling a woman’s arm.
Even by today’s bingeable crime docuseries standards, Tiger King is a wild ride, impossible to explain, with countless twists and turns. It’s the story of Exotic, an animal park operator and country music singer from Wynnewood, Okla., which is just over a two-hour drive from Dallas. He is currently serving a 22-year prison sentence on 17 charges of animal abuse, as well as two murder-for-hire charges for trying to have a rival tiger keeper, Carole Baskin, killed.
Barnett spent several months filming with Joe Exotic from 2012 to 2014 and even shot some of his country music videos. Working out of the film studio at Never Satisfied in Carrollton, Barnett was contacted by Exotic about creating a reality series. But everything fell apart when a tiger attacked a worker, Kelci “Saff” Saffery, on Oct. 5, 2013. Her arm was amputated, and the incident became a national story. Network interest in the reality show disappeared in days.
“They were supposed to use a pole to shift the cats,” Barnett says. “She was sticking her arm in the cage with the tiger instead of using the pole.” Barnett was actually shooting the scene with two cameras. He continued filming, but the other cameraman fled the scene.
Several minutes of licensed footage from Barnett are featured in Tiger King, including a video of Exotic faking a tiger attack with a real 300-pound tiger and footage of a lion that lived in a yard with six small dogs. Barnett even did a four-hour interview for the docuseries, but none of it made the final cut. “When I was there, Joe took good care of the animals, and he rescued many of them,” Barnett says.
But the man was exotic.
“Joe’s a polygamist. He’s a gun-carrying redneck with a mullet and has 230 tigers,” Barnett says. “But he was a really likable guy, and he did take care of those animals before all this stuff happened the last few years. Joe’s health was deteriorating, and so was the condition of the park.”
And for those wanting a crazy story about Exotic that is not included in the docuseries: Barnett says Exotic had an alligator once owned by Michael Jackson, rescued from Neverland Ranch. He says it was one of a few alligators that perished in a fire when a building on Exotic’s property burned down.
Joe Exotic also has a Dallas hip-hop connection. Never Satisfied is an enormous mixed-media space that includes recording studios, a film studio, rehearsal space and all sorts of amenities for clients. Some of Exotic’s songs were engineered at Never Satisfied, back when J. Oliver was a house producer. He remembers meeting Exotic once, years ago.
“It was him, his husband and like two girls,” Oliver says. “They were shooting a music video. He asked me if I was into country, and I basically lied and said I wasn’t that good at it because I wasn’t interested in something like that.”
And Oliver remembers hearing about the reality show falling apart.
“The tiger bit the arm off,” he says. “JT got everything on film, but he wouldn’t show me.”
Barnett eventually introduced Exotic to Payam Abbasi, also known as Dallas hip-hop artist Prynce P. The two met at Exotic’s animal park for a charity event. Abbasi ended up visiting Exotic in Wynnewood several times.
“Whenever friends came in from out of town, that was the perfect place to take them,” Abbasi says. “Everybody likes tigers and lions. We would play with them and feed them. Joe let me play with a baby lion. That was a great thing that he did for me. We thought he took really good care of those animals, and he always just had a positive attitude.”
“But he was different, don’t get me wrong,” Abbasi says. “He had two husbands, but I don’t ever discriminate or question anyone else’s sexuality. He had a gun, but I saw him as more of an entertainer. He was a unique, cool guy.”
But Exotic had changed by the last time Abbasi saw him in early 2016. “The place kind of smelled the last time we went there,” Abbasi says. “The animals didn’t look as happy as they used to be. It just felt different. He wasn’t as energetic. There was something wrong. I stopped going.”
Abbasi says he has not yet watched Tiger King, and he admits he is scared to. “I don’t want my memories to be crushed,” he says.
He thought the feud between Exotic and Baskin was a publicity stunt.
“I had no clue that was a real thing,” Abbasi says. “He used to post about it on Facebook. It seemed like entertainment.”
The sudden immense popularity of the docuseries is particularly surprising for Oliver.
“I used to tell people all the time about this dude,” Oliver says. “’Yeah, bro, some girl got her arm bit off in Oklahoma.’ So people remembered me telling the story and started sending me messages the other day. ‘Do you remember that time you told us about a tiger biting off somebody’s arm in Oklahoma?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ They was like, ‘Yo, it’s like on Netflix right now.’”