Claws are out on Netflix’s Tiger King, and that includes those of Joe Exotic (Joseph Maldonado-Passage) himself. Besides the murder-for-hire and wildlife abuse accusations, another suspicious crime lingers around Maldonado-Passage’s colorful history: the mysterious fire at his studio at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. Did Maldonado-Passage set that fire himself? We don’t know for sure, but he would have had at least some motivation to do so.
As episode four reveals, Maldonado-Passage wanted to be a TV and radio personality, releasing country bangers back in the day. However, a mysterious fire and Carole Baskin’s lawsuit would set his plans aflame. On March 26, 2015, a fire created more chaos at the G.W. Exotic Animal Park around 2:30 to 4:30 a.m. It burned seven alligators and a crocodile alive. It also destroyed Joe’s studio for Joe Exotic TV. Equipment was stolen, including devices with 60,000 hours of footage documented since 1999.
Maldonado-Passage believed that the arsonist was trying to “make a statement” and take him off the air. One thing is likely certain: the fire wasn’t random. According to officials, the arsonist would have to know the park’s facilities to commit the crime. There have been a few suspects so far: animal activists, Rick Kirkham, and Joe Exotic himself.
Animal activists have had a lot of beef with Maldonado-Passage, who carries an unsavory track record of animal abuse on and off-camera. Maldonado-Passage also went after Baskin, the CEO of the animal sanctuary Big Cat Rescue who sued him for trademark infringement. Baskin, evidently, is one of the loudest and most beloved voices in the animal rights community. He harassed Baskin through social media messages and posted degrading videos of her. Right before the fire, Baskin won a lawsuit against him for a million dollars.
Then there’s Kirkham. Practically a resident at the zoo, Kirkham produced Joe Exotic TV, but he was more interested in creating a reality show about the zoo. (No, it wasn’t Tiger King.) John Reinke, a zoo employee, looked at security footage and believed that the person lurking around the park the morning of the fire could’ve been Kirkham. The producer brushed this off, saying that he had no financial incentive to burn the zoo, that the footage lost was his “retirement.” Reinke suggested that Kirkham could have taken his footage. The plot thickens because a week before the fire, Kirkham and Maldonado-Passage argued over who owned Joe Exotic TV. Maldonado-Passage wanted to cut off ties with Kirkham, who contractually owned his show.
All of this leads us to the ultimate question: Could Joe Exotic have set the fire himself? Or pay someone off to do it? According to his staff, he went to a funeral during the time of the fire. Returning to the wreckage, he offered a $10,000 reward for information about the arsonist. He blamed animal activists (and, of course, Baskin). But was this all set up by Maldonado-Passage as a publicity stunt? It’s possible. This could’ve been a ploy to spite Kirkham or destroy incriminating evidence of animal abuse and other illicit activities on tape. Plus, the fire could’ve been a set-up for sympathetic people to give him money — after all, Baskin’s lawsuit drained him.
Obviously, there have been many suspects over the last five years, and the story really can go any which way. Today, the zoo fire case remains unsolved.
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