Who is Joe Exotic? Reality TV star, zoo owner, convicted criminal

TV tonight Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic
(Image credit: BBC)

Joe Exotic is the subject of Louis Theroux's latest documentary Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic. Here's everything you need to know about the Tiger King star…

Joe Exotic became a media sensation in March 2020 after starring in the hit Netflix series Tiger King.

A flamboyant and eccentric character, the series followed Joe at his zoo in Oklahoma, where he kept over 1000 animals, including 150 tigers.

But nine years earlier in 2011, documentary-maker Louis Theroux also met Joe as part of a film he was making about people who kept dangerous animals in captivity.

Tonight, Monday 5th April, Louis revisits the film in light of what has happened to Joe since, in a new documentary called Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic.

So who is the real Joe Exotic?

Born Joseph Allen Schreibvogel, Joe owned the 17-acre G.W. Zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. A larger-than-life character, Joe lived on site at the zoo with his husband John Finlay.

As well as the zoo, Joe ran a cub petting road show that travelled around shopping malls across America. The show allowed members of the public to have their picture taken with a range of wild animals, but mainly tiger cubs.

The practice attracted the attention of Carole Baskin, an animal rights campaigner who runs Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. But more of that later.

The Tiger King years

The reaction to the Netflix series was huge. Aired at the beginning of the first lockdown in the UK, people couldn't believe Joe was real, or how crazy his life-style was.

Throughout the series, Joe was extremely vocal about his hatred of Carol Baskin and how much money she had allegedly cost him.

The feud became increasingly vicious. They both filled law suits against each other, Joe lost and  ordered to pay Carole $1 million.

Joe then declared bankruptcy, which led to his friend at the time, Jeff Lowe, taking over the park to keep it out of Carole's hands.

You really couldn't make it up

The hatred between Carol and Joe escalated so much, Joe is now serving a 22-year sentence for the attempted murder of Carol Baskin.

In January 2019 a jury found Joe guilty of two counts of attempting to hire two different hit men to kill Carole. One of those was an undercover FBI agent.

Since being convicted the campaign to free Joe Exotic rumbles on. His fans claim he was set up and their calls even reached the Whitehouse.

His campaigners hoped President Trump would take up the case and free Joe. The pardon never came and Joe is still in prison to this day.

Louis reflects on his time with Joe

As the documentary comes to a close Louis reflects on his time with the controversial reality TV star. He remembers wanting to like him, but looking back he also sees what an unpredictable and fragile character Joe was.

The zoo keeper desperately wanted to be famous and he's certainly found a fame of sorts.

'The young man who dreamed of fame has been transfigured by captivity and now in 190 countries, in 62 different languages, he travels the digital ether,' concludes Louis.

Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic is on BBC Two on Monday 5th April at 9pm. 

Joanne Lowles
Freelance writer and editor

Joanne Lowles has been writing about TV since 2002. After graduating from Cardiff University with a Postgraduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism, she worked for All About Soap magazine covering the ups and downs of life on the cobbles, the square and the Dales. 

Next came nearly 10 years at TV Times magazine as a writer and then deputy features editor. Here she spent many happy days interviewing the biggest names in entertainment and visiting the sets of some of our most popular shows including Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife and Strictly Come Dancing

With a love of nature and wildlife she’s also interviewed the leading experts in this area including David Attenborough, Chris Packham and Steve Backshall. She’s also travelled the world visiting Mongolia, Canada and South Africa to see how the best in the business make the most brilliant natural history documentaries. 

Freelance since 2013, she is now is a digital writer and editor for What to Watch, previews the best on the box for TV Times mag each week and loves being constantly surprised, entertained and informed by the amazing TV that she is lucky enough to watch.