The zookeeper is upset. Long blond hair spilling from his ball cap, multiple earrings jangling as he bandies his finger about, he delivers a message to his enemies.
In a video posted online, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, known in the wider world of big game animals as “Joe Exotic,” sits before the camera. He’s discussing his ongoing spat with Carole Baskin, the head of a Tampa-area animal sanctuary and frequent critic of Maldonado-Passage’s own tiger operation in Oklahoma. The video — saved and posted by Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue — illustrates that the disagreement about the treatment of animals was charged with rancor.
“Carole Baskin better never, ever, ever see me face to face,” Maldonado-Passage tells the camera. “Ever, ever, ever again.”
He then turns to his right, lifts a large silver revolver and fires into the head of a blond-haired blowup doll draped in a brown blanket.
“That,” he says, pointing his hand at the camera, “is how sick and tired of this . . . I am.”
According to federal prosecutors, his long-standing rage took an even more potentially deadly turn. Last week, a federal grand jury in Oklahoma returned an indictment against Maldonado-Passage for allegedly attempting to hire two people to kill a Jane Doe in Florida. A news release from the Justice Department said the zookeeper was arrested Friday in Gulf Breeze, Fla.
In a message posted to Facebook Live, Baskin revealed she was the target of the alleged murder-for-hire plot after years of alleged online threats from the 55-year-old zookeeper. Her assertion, that she is the Jane Doe, could not be independently confirmed. It’s unclear why prosecutors did not specify the name of the intended victim.
The case throws a spotlight on the growing tensions between animal rights activists and zoo operators, particularly in the arena of big cats, such as lions and tigers.
“It is important to understand that this is not the isolated act of one crazy bad apple,” Baskin said in her video message. “Because Big Cat Rescue has been a leader in working to stop what we view as abuse of big cats and been very effective in our work, I have received multiple death threats over the years, including at one point a number of snakes placed in my mailbox.”
Maldonado-Passage has yet to enter a plea in the case. He did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment.
Maldonado-Passage was a colorful presence in Oklahoma as well as the world of big cats. According to a 2013 story by News OK, the zookeeper’s parents founded the GW Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Okla., before Maldonado-Passage took over. The same piece stated that Maldonado-Passage was once a police chief in a small North Texas town.
The zookeeper also drew attention for his quixotic runs for political office. In 2016, he jumped into the U.S. presidential race as an independent candidate, using his YouTube channel to post numerous videos outlining his reasons behind the White House run.
“First thing is, I am not cutting my hair,” Maldonado-Passage announced in one campaign video as he strolled by lounging lions. “I am not changing the way I dress. I refuse to wear a suit. I am gay. I’ve had two boyfriends most of my life. I currently got legally married — thank God it’s finally legal in America. I’ve had some kinky sex. I have tried drugs through my younger years of my life. I am broke as . . . I have a judgment against me from some b—- down in Florida.”
The latter comment ties directly into his ongoing run-ins with Baskin and her animal sanctuary. The organization repeatedly questioned the conditions at Maldonado-Passage’s facility.
“A significant part of our mission has been to stop mistreatment and exploitation of big cats at roadside zoos, particularly those who rip tiger cubs from their mothers at birth to charge the public to pet and take photos with them,” Baskin said in her Facebook Live post.
According to the statement from Big Cat Rescue, in addition to his Oklahoma zoo, Maldonado-Passage also at one point operated a traveling exhibit that brought tiger cubs to malls around the Midwest and Southwest. Baskin’s group contacted the malls, complaining about the conditions the animals were forced to live in. The effort torpedoed Maldonado-Passage’s business.
Maldonado-Passage retaliated by renaming his organization “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment.” In 2011, Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue sued Maldonado-Passage’s Big Cat Rescue Entertainment for violating the former’s intellectual property rights. In 2013, Baskin was awarded a $1 million judgment against Maldonado-Passage. The animal sanctuary has yet to collect on the judgment, but Baskin became a regular target of Maldonado-Passage’s attack videos.
“For Carole and all of her friends that are watching out there, if you think for one minute I was nuts before, I am the most dangerous exotic animal owner on this planet right now,” Maldonado-Passage stated in one video. “And before you bring me down, it is my belief that you will stop breathing.”
According to Oklahoma City’s News 9, three years ago the Wynnewood animal park was taken over by new owners, Jeff and Lauren Lowe.
Lauren Lowe told the news station at one point the couple discovered evidence that pushed them to contact law enforcement. “We did contact authorities, not your local police. We actually contacted the feds,” she told News 9.
According to the federal indictment against Maldonado-Passage, the big-cat trainer allegedly contacted an unnamed individual in November 2017 asking if he “would travel to Florida to murder Jane Doe.” The defendant allegedly offered the individual $3,000 in cash for the hit, as well as “thousands of dollars more” after the murder. Maldonado-Passage also allegedly asked the individual to “obtain a fake identification card for use” in the murder plot.
The indictment also states that between July 2016 and March 2018, Maldonado-Passage allegedly asked a second unnamed individual if they “could find someone to murder Jane Doe in exchange for a sum of money.” In December 2017, this individual allegedly offered to introduce the defendant to someone who was interested in carrying out the crime. Maldonado-Passage allegedly discussed the details of the hit with this third party — who was actually an undercover FBI agent.
The indictment charges Maldonado-Passage with two counts of the use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of a murder for hire. According to the Justice Department, he faces 20 years in prison, as well as a possible $500,000 fine.
As the Tampa Bay Times pointed out, the indictment hits Maldonado-Passage after a rocky year. Last October, his husband was killed after accidentally shooting himself in the head. This summer, the zookeeper launched another ill-fated bid for political office.
The Times reported he came in third in the primary for the Libertarian candidate for Oklahoma governor.
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