‘Tiger King’ Joe Exotic’s Inside Man: Trump Pardon Talk ‘Crazy’ Because Joe Is ‘Pure Evil’
Rick Kirkham spent a year chronicling Joe Exotic for an aborted reality TV show. He tells Marlow Stern about all the insane things the Netflix docuseries left out.
Rick Kirkham has seen a lot of assholes in his day—he spent years working alongside Bill O’Reilly at Inside Edition—but none of them came close to Joe Exotic.
“This was one of the most evil people I’ve met in my entire life,” Kirkham tells me. “He treated the animals terribly, he treated the people that he worked with terribly. I can’t imagine any more evil a person, and for people to actually find sympathy for him? That blows my mind.”
The 61-year-old ex-newsman is, of course, referring to Tiger King, the gonzo Netflix docuseries turned cultural phenomenon. It’s the No. 1 show on the streaming behemoth, attracting 34 million viewers in its first ten days; rapper Cardi B live-tweeted it; the Wu-Tang’s RZA thinks Carole did it; a horde of spin-offs are in the works, including a Kate McKinnon-starring TV series and rumored feature film; and President Trump is reportedly eyeing a possible pardon for Joe Exotic, thanks in no small part to the idiocy of his large adult son. Tiger King’s captured the attention of a nation at a time when, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they needed a mindless diversion.
But the online fandom for Joe Exotic—the deluge of memes, gushing tweets, and ludicrous pardon talk—has taken Kirkham, who spent a whole year (“the cameras were running 24-7”) filming him for a prospective reality show, by complete surprise.
“For me to actually believe that people could come out of seeing something about Joe Exotic and find any reason to like the man is astounding,” he says.
Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaikin’s docuseries paints Exotic as an iconoclastic, tormented figure who may have been the fall guy in an elaborate conspiracy to wrestle control of his zoo away from him. It fails to mention that Exotic, who’s currently serving 22 years behind bars for his involvement in a murder-for-hire plot against his rival Carole Baskin, was also found guilty of eight violations of the Lacey Act for hawking tiger cubs across state lines, and nine violations of the Endangered Species Act for executing tigers, with the bones belonging to five tigers found buried in the back of his G.W. Zoo.
And Kirkham says that ain’t even the half of it.
“I witnessed him shoot and kill two tigers for no reason whatsoever, just because he was pissed off at them,” says Kirkham. “One of them tried to get at him in a cage, and so he said, ‘Hey Rick, watch this! Shoot this,’ and I videotaped him shooting one right in the head. The other one was, Joe had been in surgery and tried to wake up early, and he was so scared of one of the tigers that he shot and killed the thing.”
He adds, “It was typical in a given morning that if Joe was in a bad mood, he’d walk down “Tiger Row”—which is where all the tiger cages were—and we had wild chickens that ran around everywhere in the zoo, and he’d just be pissed and kick one of these chickens into the cage so that these tigers could just rip it to shreds. That was just the kind of guy he was. He enjoyed seeing people and animals hurt. He enjoyed it. He got off on it.”
According to Kirkham, the reason why Exotic’s serial animal abuse wasn’t included in the series is because the filmmakers simply didn’t have the footage. You see, damn near all the tape for Joe Exotic: Tiger King, the reality-television show Kirkham was producing, was burned down in a studio fire on G.W. Zoo property—a fire Kirkham believes Exotic set because he was worried about how incriminating the content was.
Oh, and Exotic wasn’t some brave tiger wrangler. Kirkham claims that the supposed big-cat lover couldn’t even stand in a cage with a tiger unless it was either blind or drugged.
“He had a daily show that lasted about 15 minutes where, in front of an audience, he’d get into a cage with two tigers—one of them was blind, the other one was sedated. He was so terrified of these big cats, you would not believe it,” maintains Kirkham. “So he’d get in there with this blind tiger and this drugged tiger, let them stumble around with him, and he’d talk about how he was the ‘Tiger King.’ It was all BS. The guy was scared of these cats. If he was going to get anywhere near a tiger, it was heavily sedated.”
The most drugged-up thing at the G.W. Zoo, however, was Joe himself.
“Joe was the one doing most of the meth,” says Kirkham. “Joe would be up at 5 a.m. and he’d go full speed, around the clock until 2 a.m. He probably got three hours of sleep every night, and as a result, he was a frail guy—he probably weighed 125 lbs., and was always twisting an ankle or something because he didn’t have enough meat on his bones.”
Exotic’s abusive habits allegedly extended to his staffers. And the Netflix series didn’t come anywhere close to exposing the ways he tortured the crew at the G.W. Zoo.
“They were shoved around, lived in horrible conditions, and forced to eat the same expired meat from Walmart that the animals did. Some of this meat was green; it had literally been expired for six to eight days. They’d either carve out the green part and try to eat it, or not eat at all. Plus, they were only paid $100 a week,” explains Kirkham. “But these people had nowhere else to go—they were either homeless, runaways or drug addicts. It was, be a part of Joe Exotic’s cult or die.”
On Saturday at 2 pm EST, Kirkham is hosting an interactive livestream where he’ll present exclusive never-before-seen footage of Exotic and life at G.W. Zoo, as well as answer viewers’ burning questions. He says he might even tell a story of an alleged “sexual assault” involving Exotic, though he’s waiting to get the approval of the accuser.
“I can tell you that the footage we had should have seriously put him in jail,” he says, before pausing. “The real embarrassment to me these days is that, given what I saw, I continued to record and continued to produce a reality show. I should have known better and not sold out my integrity by staying with him as long as I did.”
As previously mentioned, Kirkham was no stranger to unbearable pricks, having spent years with the disgraced sexual predator Bill O’Reilly at Inside Edition. When I ask him how working with Exotic compared to working with O’Reilly, he lets out a big laugh.
“Bill O’Reilly was a true journalist but he was an asshole to everybody. Joe Exotic was pure evil,” he says.
Speaking of creeps, our talk eventually turns to the aforementioned pardon President Trump is considering for Exotic. The mention of that provokes an even bigger laugh:
“I can only give you my opinion on that, and I’ll make it short and sweet: It is one maniacal, crazy man trying to think about letting another one go free.”