Editor’s Note: May contain some spoilers
Netflix’s "Tiger King" came out at the right moment. That’s a good and bad thing. For the filmmakers, they’re ignited viral sensation about Joe Exotic, a former private zoo and big cat owner from Oklahoma. It’s tempered by the fact that the documentary series meteoric rise is due to the fact that virtually the entire nation is on lockdown due to the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. As of today, nearly 430,000 Americans have been infected by the pneumonia-like virus, with more than 14,000 dying from it.
Still, the documentary is immensely entertaining. It showcases the world of exotic animal ownership, the characters behind it, and the political battles within. Yes, believe it or not, there is a political war between these big cat folks and the animal rights groups that border on blood lust. The series has multiple narratives: Joe Exotic’s life, his archnemesis Carole Baskin’s life, the lives of other exotic owners, the legislation Baskin is trying to pass to ban private zoos, Baskin’s alleged murder of her husband, Exotic’s legal war with Baskin, Exotic’s relationship with Jeff Lowe, a rather shady character in the series, and Exotic’s arrest and conviction of a murder-for-hire plot against Baskin. Though that storyline, and the unexplained disappearance of Baskin’s husband, is enough to warrant stand-alone series.
It’s a blizzard of emotions, but one thing is quite clear: people who own big cats are a peculiar breed. It would make for good television, right? That’s exactly what Rick Kirkham thought. Kirkham was the point person for Joe Exotic TV, a reality series he was trying to get off the ground. It went up in flames, literally, and all the footage he had shot over a period of five years was lost. And things took a dark turn. Just watch the series and you’ll see. Kirkham may sound familiar to some, folks. He was once a rising star in the world of broadcast journalism.
He worked for various local outlets in the 1980s before being hired at Inside Edition. He interviewed President George H.W. Bush, James Brown, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw. He was also a crack cocaine addict. Since age 14, he did scores of video diaries, which he edited into a feature-length documentary in 2006 called “TV Junkie,” which details his life and career as he battled addiction. It’s not the most pleasant film. He’s very open about his addiction and you see the toll it takes on his family, especially his now-ex-wife. There’s a very unsettling moment where Rick and his wife seem to be involved in a domestic violence dispute, his son is sobbing uncontrollably in the background. The good news is that he got clean, though at a great cost to his career and family. Kirkham said his two sons were the reasons for him to get his act together.
From his career as a journalist, Kirkham says he was able to capture great material for this planned show, which he was contracted to do. He also owned the footage, which led to his falling out with Exotic before the studio containing all the footage burned up. In an interview with Extra, Kirkham says the series could’ve been more violent with his footage, as Exotic abused animals. Kirkham claims Exotic shot and killed tigers and reportedly killed a horse and fed it to his cats. Kirkham said after doing the Netflix interview for the documentary, he had trouble sleeping. But he also said the footage is still out there. At the time of the studio fire, he was told the safe with all the backup hard drives was destroyed due to the intense heat and now he’s been told that it was missing when the damage was assessed (via Evening Standard):
“I did the interview about nine months ago,” he said. “We spent three days together, with about six hours total interview.
"After my first Netflix interview, I had some problems. I had nightmares and had to take sleeping pills. But I am ok now.”
In the series, Kirkham is accused by Exotic of setting fire to his production office, destroying hours of valuable video footage that he'd captured. A number of alligators also died in the blaze.
Kirkham said he spent years in therapy afterwards, saying the fire “was difficult for me.”
"That was my retirement in that studio,” he said. “When the fire occurred, I dropped to my knees and cried. I put so much time and money in to it and it literally burned.
Kirkham, who now lives in Norway with his wife, also cast doubt on the whereabouts of the back-up recordings he kept, adding: “The mysterious part is, we had a safe with the hard drive with all the backed up footage in it, which apparently melted because the fire was so hot. But now, and this is a recent thing, I am told it was missing. So who has those tapes? We don’t know.”
Kirkham says he has not spoken to Exotic since two days before the fire.
This show even worked its way into the White House Wuhan coronavirus briefing on April 8, which was the break we all needed. A reporter asked President Trump if he would pardon Joe Exotic for his murder-for-hire and animal cruelty charges for which he’s serving a 22-year sentence.
It’s a wild show for sure. And even with the antics that occurred, it would seem that Kirkham remains clean, even though Exotic’s zoo had drugs everywhere. Another interesting aspect of this show is that the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is reopening the missing person case into Don Lewis, Carole Baskin’s husband who went mysteriously missing. It is rumored that Carole fed her husband to her tigers. Another theory is that he was murdered and buried in sanctuary's septic tank.