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What Happened To Joe Exotic's Zoo And His Employees After His Murder-For-Hire Conviction?
Three employees — Kelci Saffery, John Reinke and Erik Cowie — are featured prominently in the new Netflix docuseries about Joe Exotic.
It's the now infamous docu-series that focuses on the rise and fall of a bombastic Oklahoma zookeeper who ultimately lost his zoo and went to prison as part of a murder-for-hire plot — a tale told with the help of the various employees at the zoo.
Three employees of Joe Exotic – John Reinke, Kelci "Saff" Saffery, and Erik Cowie – are given early prominence in Netflix's "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness." They offer insight throughout the series about Exotic's rise and eventual fall, with many of them somewhat unsurprised by the fact that Exotic ended up in prison for hiring someone in an unsuccessful attempt to kill animal rights activist Carole Baskin.
Exotic, whose legal name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, quickly reached a low point after his legal clashes with Baskin's big cat sanctuary eventually landed him in debt. This led him to take on a financial partner in businessman Jeff Lowe, who soon moved to take over Exotic's park and install some of his own employees.
Exotic fell even further when he became subject to a federal investigation that ultimately resulted in authorities learning he paid someone to kill Baskin.
"He thinks he's above the law," Reinke said in the documentary while watching news of Exotic's arrest. "I just can't believe he actually paid somebody to do it."
So where are these employees now and what happened to the animal park Exotic founded?
What Happened To Exotic's Zoo?
As was documented in the series, Exotic eventually lost control of the zoo to his business partner Jeff Lowe, who later provided evidence against Exotic to federal authorities. This helped to lead to Exotic's conviction earlier this year.
The park is still apparently in operation as the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park; however it has been reported by multiple outlets that Lowe plans to relocate the zoo to Thackerville, Oklahoma — a small town located on the state's border with Texas.
Lowe would not comment further on when the new zoo is expected to be complete, according to a 2019 report from KXII.
As shown in the documentary, the planned move has hit a number of roadblocks and the project appears to have stalled sometime in 2019.
However, there is apparently a current rebrand underway for a new Oklahoma Zoo supposedly opening this year — located in Thackerville where Lowe has said he will open a zoo.
An active Instagram account associated with the new zoo features both Lowe and his wife Lauren playing with various exotic animals. Lowe did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Oxygen.com through the account.
The Wynnewood-area zoo still advertises itself as open but multiple phone calls from Oxygen.com to the zoo were met with busy signals.
A 2019 report from Texas Monthly noted that the reporter visiting the zoo was the only guest there and that multiple cages had been emptied out.
"Many of the cages were empty, and the ones that weren’t held cats that paced aimlessly inside their small enclosures. There were piles of dried feces in some of the cages. It took me about twenty minutes to walk slowly through the zoo," the article read.
The filmmakers behind "Tiger King" also say the current COVID-19 epidemic gripping the nation is badly impacting the zoo's business, though it was not doing well to begin with in any case.
"No one is going now and there’s no source of income, and that's been going on for a long time," co-director Eric Goode told Entertainment Weekly.
What Happened To John Reinke?
Before his participation in the documentary, Reinke had already been a part of the viral news cycle. The friendship between his pet dachshund Milo and a zoo lion named Bonedigger was covered by TODAY.com in 2013. A picture of Reinke cuddling with the lion and dog is shown in the article.
Reinke lost both of his legs in a bungee jumping accident in 1994 when he lived in Texas, according to local news outlet the Oklahoman, which profiled Reinke in 2010. He eventually moved from Texas to Oklahoma and joined the zoo in 2007. Reinke worked there as a manager for multiple years until Exotic's arrest and Lowe's control of the zoo made it untenable.
Reinke explained in the series he misses Bonedigger today and does not work at the zoo anymore. He apparently lives in a trailer and works as a welder, according to the series.
"Unless I had s--tloads of money to dump into Jeff's lap, I'd never get my animals back. So I just had to walk away from them," he explained in this series. "I'm 52 years old, I'm done with this he-said, she said stuff. I live on my own now."
"The Tiger King and I” — a bonus episode released Easter weekend which provides updates on many of the docuseries’ subjects — revealed that Cowie quit the zoo the same day that Exotic did. Naturally, his departure followed him witnessing a 15-minute-long parking lot fight between Lowe and Exotic’s current husband, he claimed.
Reinke has apparently moved back to Texas following the conclusion of his time with the zoo. A 2019 Facebook post from an auto shop gives special thanks to Reinke for work building a race car.
He told “The Tiger King and I” host Joel McHale that he mostly keeps to himself nowadays.
“I’m an asshole just like Joe is,” he said. “I don’t hang out with people because people just stab you in the back.”
Reinke does have a new girlfriend though.
“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in a long time,” he gushed. He said his divorce will hopefully finalize after the coronavirus pandemic slows down.
He is still dedicated to not wearing pants. He said he likely won’t put on a pair — his only —again unless he needs to make another court appearance.
What Happened To Kelci "Saff" Saffery?
As dramatically documented in the series, Saffery had his arm ripped off by a tiger in 2013.
"I, Kelci Saffery, release this statement to the press. On October 5th, I broke protocol and stuck my hand in a cat cage instead of using the stick provided. The cat let go and pushed my arm back through the stage. This tiger was not aggressive towards me. I hope for a healthy recovery so I can return to work everyday with my tigers. -Saffery," Exotic read from a statement supposedly written by Saffery following the mauling, local outlet KOCO reported.
Saffery returned to work a few days after the mauling — having opted for amputation rather than undergo extensive reconstructive surgery, News9 reported at the time.
"They said it was going to be years and years of reconstructive surgery. That's not something that sat well with me because that means I can't be here on the park doing what I love and doing it every day," Saffery told the outlet at the time.
Saffery also talks about how he has moved on from working at the zoo in the final episode of "Tiger King" and sounds disillusioned with the fight between Exotic and animal rights advocates like Carole Baskin: "Nobody wins. Everyone involved in this is a so-called animal advocate. Not a single animal benefited from this war."
Saffery later told Oxygen.com that he does not work at the zoo anymore and does not keep in touch with anyone from that time period.
“I chose to leave the park and every one involved behind me," Saffery told Oxygen.com.
While some of his former coworkers seem gleeful that Exotic is now in prison, Saffery's reaction seems more measured.
“I’ve seen him give the jacket off his back for people,” he told McHale in the docuseries’ bonus episode. ”And, I think that wasn’t highlighted enough. Joe did a lot of messed up stuff and that’s a fact and that’s shown and now the entire world knows it but he did a lot of good things, too.”
Still, Saffery said he’d still trust the tiger who bit off part his arm over Exotic.
What Happened To Erik Cowie?
Cowie was the head zookeeper for Exotic's zoo and eventually ended up testifying in the trial where his former boss would be convicted on multiple counts and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
His testimony in the trial was dedicated to talking about the tigers that he cared for that Exotic ended up killing to make room for more baby tigers, according to a 2019 report from Texas Monthly. Juvenile tigers were a large source of income for Exotic as he could sell them for large sums across the country and charge people for photo-ops with the virtually harmless cubs, the documentary explains.
However, when juvenile tigers grow to full size, they become difficult to handle, much more dangerous and very expensive to feed — which led to the killings of the tigers at Exotic's zoo.
"I knew what was going on. I'm [not] stupid," Cowie told KFOR during the trial. "I knew cats were getting shot."
"You know those cats trusted me ... so when they died, I was the guy that was right there," Cowie told the filmmakers in an interview where he appears distraught. "That means a minute to me. A heavy minute."
Exotic has admitted to killing tigers at his zoo, but contended he was euthanizing the animals because they were in "pain," he told local television station KOCO in 2018.
Cowie is shown making burgers at an Oklahoma restaurant in the final episode of the docu-series, expressing disbelief at Exotic's conviction in 2019.
That stint appeared to be short-lived. He told McHale in “The Tiger King and I” that he is back at the zoo, where he is head zookeeper once again. He said that working for Lowe has been a lot easier than working for Exotic.
Cowie hasn’t yet watched “Tiger King.” He told McHale that he hasn’t had time because of work. Everyone around him has seen it though and he said going out in public usually results in people recording him with their phones.
The zookeeper expressed disgust over being compared to Mötley Crüe’s lead singer Vince Neil.
He also doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for Exotic.
“Good riddance,” he said.
"Tiger King" is available to stream on Netflix.