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Joe Exotic's traumas: 'Tiger King' was raped at 5, tried killing himself and saw first husband die in his arms

He was brought up almost as a hired help, without love and his parents hated him for being gay
UPDATED SEP 23, 2020

Joe Exotic became a star overnight after Netflix released ‘Tiger King’ in March that documented the life of the 57-year-old and his battles with rival Carole Baskin, an animal rights campaigner who runs the Big Cat Sanctuary. But the Netflix docuseries did not touch upon the early life of the jailed star. Now, Exotic has shared his traumatic past in a new documentary — titled ‘Joe Exotic Before He Was King’ — by ID network. He says he was raped and exploited as a kid, and also had to witness the death of his first husband Brian Rhyne, who died from complications related to AIDS.

“My mom and dad, they were farm people, and they came from families of farm people. You were born to be a hired hand and not a kid so it was a lot of hard work and late nights and struggles,” Exotic said in an exclusive preview of the show seen by The Sun. “Now that I’m older, I can pretty much relate to the same things of why mom and dad were always in a bad mood and everything else. It was probably the verbal abuse of getting yelled at all the time. And never the parents say ‘I love you’ because that wasn’t taught in your household back in the 60s. It is not the way I chose to grew up."

The protagonist of the series said that the lack of love at home affected him badly, both emotionally and medically. “This is just not the way I would have chose to grow, getting yelled at all the time and put under pressure and the stress. When I was in the 5th grade, I already had an ulcer disease,” he said. Besides, Exotic also revealed to a journalist that at the age of five he was repeatedly raped by a boy older to him at his own house and how he was hated by his parents for being open about his sexuality. “Being gay... they really didn’t take to being openly gay," he added.

In the new documentary, which is due to air next week, Exotic mentioned that he found love in animals after not finding the same in the human world. “I lay in bed at night and I hurt so bad and I am just so in my own little world. And not the animals, the people in this world will eat you up and spit you out,” he said.


The upcoming show also presents the love story of Exotic and Rhyne whom he married years ago before gay marriage became legal. But 2001 proved devastating for Exotic as Rhyne died that year in his arms in a park from AIDS. He said, “When you deal with and you have dealt with as much death as I have, whether it’s my brother, my ex-husband, the animals that you fall in love with, you build this wall."

According to the ID network show, at the age of 19, Exotic got a job as chief of police of a small town, Eastvale, in Texas. Though he seemed lively at the time, he was not happy. Once he reportedly drove his police car into the side of a bridge. First, he called the incident “a bad accident”, but later admitted that he actually attempted suicide.

After the suicide attempt, he had to go to Florida to undergo therapy for his broken back and shoulder, where he found comfort in animal care at Lion Country Safari Park. He was also invited by his supportive brother Garold Wayne (G.W.) to co-run his pet store in Texas. But that happiness was also short-lived as Wayne died in an accident outside Dallas, Texas in 1997. Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, said: “That man had taught me everything I know. I watched the last days with my brother on life support and had to convince my mom and dad to shut it off. And when I signed the papers to shut his life machine off, I promised him he wouldn’t die for no reason and I wanted the world to know what a great guy he was.”


In addition to Exotic’s early life, the forthcoming documentary also showcases how despite being successful and an owner of 187 tigers, having two husbands, adoring fans, and a daily internet show, he lived in filth. “I live in a house that’s a piece of crap. The roof caved in two weeks ago. The carpet was so flooded that we had to pull it up because of the black mold. And my couches don’t even have armrests on them anymore from the tigers chewing the armrests off,” he said in one interview. “I eat out of trash cans most of the time. I puke all day. I do I.V.s all night. And I literally have rat s**t in my cabinets but I wouldn’t trade this for anything because I represent something so much more powerful than the dollar it takes to get in this place. Not only do I have to worry about $60,000 in bills every month — and that’s just to break even — but I have eighteen people also whose lives depend on me every day. Whether it’s to be their friend or to be up their a**.”

“Am I nuts? God I must be because the abuse and the hours and the sacrifice that I give up. And I’m going to continue to be broke and I’m going to continue to fight to keep this memorial park going. Until I either finally die of a heart attack or somebody shoots me,” Exotic added.