"His ridiculousness was endearing." Louis Theroux on the hypocrisy of Joe Exotic.

In 2011, long before he was known throughout the world thanks to a bonkers Netflix series, Joe Exotic met Louis Theroux.

It was for the American-British filmmaker’s BBC documentary America’s Most Dangerous Pets, which sees Theroux travel through the United States, meeting people who own animals like lions, tigers, bears and chimpanzees.

And when you’re digging into America’s exotic animal community, it would be impossible to ignore Exotic.

Louis Theroux’s America’s Most Dangerous Pets with Joe Exotic. Post continues below video.

Video via BBC

Over three separate trips while filming America’s Most Dangerous Pets, Theroux spent the best part of a week with the Tiger King himself.

Reflecting on his experience with Exotic nine years ago – and having viewed Netflix’s phenomenon Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness – Theroux wrote a column for The Sunday Times over the weekend, and it perfectly sums up the hypocrisy of the man who has become one of the world’s most undeserving heroes.

In his column, Theroux recalled how Exotic would “lurch from crisis to crisis”, beginning with them having to lockdown his zoo as a tornado passed by, threatening to send 200 tigers and more than a thousand other would-be wild animals into the path of unsuspecting folk in the nearest town of Wynnewood, Oklahoma.

Other crises included the constant threat of financial ruin, handling low-level bites and maulings, and being hounded by “animal rights people”.

There was a reason those animal rights people were onto him: In 2006, undercover filming by Peta found evidence of mistreatment. The footage showed animals being kicked, deprived of food, blasted with pressurised hoses and fire extinguishers and denied vet treatment at Exotic’s GW Zoo.

joe exotic now
Image: Netflix.

Following this investigation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture put Exotic on probation for 18 months and ordered him to pay a $25,000 fine for nearly 200 violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

Exotic labelled his zoo as "an upscale zoo for rescued animals", but that was not necessarily the case.

"Breeding is the defining hypocrisy of a certain kind of animal sanctuary," Theroux wrote.

"Sanctuaries notionally exist to provide homes for creatures that need them, not to breed new ones. But it was also the case that one of the few dependable ways for outfits such as Joe’s to make money was to charge large sums for people, usually children, to take photos with tiger cubs. He did this at his park and also in a roadshow that travelled around malls in the ever-decreasing number of states in which the practice was not yet banned."

Will Tiger King end our obsession with cuddling tiger cubs? Post continues below audio.

Though public knowledge on how unethical petting and selfies with wild animals are continues to grow, Exotic knew tiger cubs lead to a steady income stream. At least until they grew up.

"The flaw in this strategy - leaving aside the ethical issues involved in taking tiger cubs from their mothers on their first day of life and trucking them around suburban parking lots to be cuddled by children for photos - was not hard to spot," Theroux recalled.

"Those tiger cubs were money-makers for a matter of months. There then followed another 20 years of life, during which they would be aggressive to the point of potentially killing any human within pouncing distance.


"At Joe's facility, they joined the vast number of surplus beasts consuming cast-off cuts of meat donated by Walmart in cages at the back of the property."

The thing is, we know what Exotic did was questionable at best, and highly abusive at worst.

He himself made barely any attempt to cover up or explain away his choices.

In Tiger King, we watch as he pulls a newborn cub from its mother moments after being born. He then complains about how he can't sleep as the cub - and its siblings - cry out from a cage in his house.

louis theroux joe exotic
Image: BBC.

Yet still, Exotic has come out of the Netflix series as the hero.

A flawed one, yes, but one who most viewers can't help but feel a little sorry for. Rapper Cardi B wanted to set up a GoFundMe campaign for him, but the donation site shut down her hopes as Exotic's actions (he is serving a 22-year sentence for murder-for-hire and 17 wildlife charges) go against their terms of service.

Viewers found his eccentricities, like his belief he had a chance of becoming President and that eyebrow ring that looks like it's holding on for dear life, endearing.

In theory, he stood for everything we should despise (and his love of holding animals in too-small cages was just the beginning).

His incessant ranting about "that b*tch Carole Baskin" became funny, even though his actions towards her were deeply, deeply abusive and intimidating (even before the murder-for-hire attempt). We liked his songs and his strange music videos, even though his music wasn't actually good, and we so desperately wanted to believe he was framed.

Image: BBC.

He employed a Walmart gun salesman as his political campaign manager. He handed out condoms with his face on them and told voters they'd be screwed if they didn't vote for him. He blew things up and carried a gun everywhere.

But then came the memes and the parodies. Everyone on the internet became a detective, determined to believe his innocence and the guilt of his enemies. And should we take a guess at what this year's most popular Halloween costume will be, if we're allowed outside our homes by October?

His unstable, dangerous behaviour was part of the shtick. Joe Exotic was too outlandish to dislike.

Theroux about summed it up:

"As awful as the practice [of breeding cubs for hands-on experiences like photos and petting] is, and despite the many compromises and cruelties entailed in Joe’s running of the GW zoo, it was hard to dislike the man himself, maybe because he seemed neither to be hiding many of his misdeeds nor to take himself too seriously, not to mention that his emotional volatility - laughter, tears, kindness, paranoia, all in quick succession - inclined me to be a little protective of him," he wrote.

"I warmed to him, and his ridiculousness was endearing rather than annoying."

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Feature image: BBC.

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