From February to June 2006, the animal rights group PETA conducted an investigation into the activities of a big cat breeder and private zoo owner named Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage. The 42-year-old owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, a ramshackle petting zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, called himself "Joe Exotic." Maldonado-Passage, in addition to owning the zoo, supplied tiger cubs to the cruel petting zoo industry.
PETA activists had been trying to shut down Maldonado-Passage's operation for several years. The PETA investigation revealed the Wynnewood zoo's tigers were beaten, deprived of food, and denied basic veterinary treatment. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture fined Maldonado-Passage $25,000 for violating the federal Animal Welfare Act.
In 2011, the Humane Society conducted an investigation of Maldonado-Passage's animal park. An undercover Humane Society investigator, after working at the private zoo for four months, reported that tigers were beaten and whipped during training. Moreover, visitors to the zoo were bitten and attacked by tiger cubs that were too old to be near people. Tiger cubs that were so young they hadn't opened their eyes were handled by park visitors, traumatizing the animals.
The results of these investigations did not result in the shutting down of Maldonado-Passage's operation.
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, in 2015, ran for the office of U.S. President as an Independent candidate. He had also run for Governor of Oklahoma, a race he also lost.
In 2016, after the deaths of 23 tiger cubs at the Wynnewood Animal Park, PETA members rescued 39 abused tigers, two bears, and two baboons from the zoo. The place was still not shut down.
Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist and owner of Big Cat Rescue, a 69-acre animal sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, had also been trying to put Maldonado-Passage out of the big cat breeding and petting zoo business. She sued Maldonado-Passage for his unauthorized use of her Big Cat Rescue's trademark, and in 2016, won a million-dollar civil judgment against him.
As his debts mounted, Maldonado-Passage harassed Baskin with online videos in which he accused her of all sorts of things. In order to escape his financial responsibilities, Maldonado-Passage transferred ownership of the animal park to his mother. A federal judge ruled this transfer of ownership void, an attempt by Maldonado-Passage to defraud his creditors.
Enraged and desperate, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, in November 2017, paid an unnamed man $3,000 to travel to Tampa, Florida and murder his nemesis, Carole Baskin. The murder-for-hire mastermind promised to pay his hit man an additional $7,000 when he finished the job. For some reason, the would-be assassin failed to carry out his assignment.
In December 2017, Maldonado-Passage reached out to another unnamed man and asked him to murder the animal rights activist. This person went straight to the FBI. Later that month, Maldonado-Passage and an undercover FBI agent met. At one point during the recorded conversation, Maldonado-Passage said, "Just follow her into a small parking lot and just cap her and drive off." Maldonado-Passage offered to pay the FBI agent $10,000 for the hit.
On September 5, 2018, Timmothy J. Downing, the United States Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma, acquired an indictment against Joseph Maldonado-Passage charging him with two counts of murder-for-hire, several counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, and multiple counts of crimes against wildlife.
FBI agents, two days after the indictment, arrested Maldonado-Passage in Gulf Breeze, Florida. He was booked into the Santa Rosa County jail to await extradition back to Oklahoma.
The Maldonado-Passage murder-for-hire trial got underway on March 25, 2019. After six days of testimony in which the defendant took the stand and claimed that he hadn't been serious when he solicited Carole Baskin's murder, the jury found him guilty as charged.
Several months after the conviction, the federal district judge sentenced the 56-year-old Maldonado-Passage to 22 years in prison. Attorneys for Maldonado-Passage said they would appeal.
Following Maldonado-Passage's sentencing, Carole Baskin, on her Big Cat Rescue website, posted this: "Because of his constant threats to kill me, I have found myself seeing every bystander as a potential threat. My daughter, my husband, my mother, my staff, and volunteers have all been in peril because of his obsession with seeing me dead."
In March 2020, Maldonado-Passage, while serving his time at a federal prison in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, filed a $94 million civil suit agains the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agent, a former business partner, and others he blamed for his arrest and conviction.
Netflix, in March 2020, aired "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," a several part documentary that made Maldonado-Passage a pop culture celebrity. The following month, the animal abuser and murder-for-hire mastermind was featured on the cover of People Magazine.
In June 2020, a federal district judge granted Carole Baskin and her animal rescue group control of Maldonado-Passage's Oklahoma zoo. Homes would be found for all of the abused animals.