If you’ve been watching the new docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” then you already know that the “Tiger King” portion of the show’s title came from a reality show dream that, quite literally, went up in flames.
Much of the day-to-day life of eccentric exotic animal breeder and Oklahoma zookeeper Joe Exotic’s life was already recorded as part of a hopeful reality television show project called “Joe Exotic, Tiger King.”
“Joe Exotic was everything I had dreamed of in finding a reality show,” the project's producer Rick Kirkham said in the Netflix docuseries. Exotic originally enlisted him to do the production for Exotic's internet show — which often focused on Exotic’s hatred for his longtime rival Carole Baskin. While sprucing up the bizarre series, Kirkham promised the attention-hungry Exotic that he would transform him into a reality television star.
In The Tiger King and I” — a bonus episode that aired Easter weekend and gave updates on many of the docuseries’ subjects — Kirkham said he found Exotic through an “outrageous Craigslist ad” that Exotic posted. He said within a day of seeing that ad, he was living at the Greater Wynnewood Zoo property. There, he began to record footage for his show project and to shoot publicity stills. Naturally, this included imagery of Exotic sitting on a throne in the middle of a tiger cage, as shown in the docuseries.
However, Exotic, whose legal name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, wouldn't become a reality star: Instead, he is currently serving 22 years for attempting to hire a hitman to kill Baskin, an animal rights activist who is another controversial figure in the big cat world. In addition to getting convicted on two counts of murder-for-hire, Exotic was also found guilty of eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records, and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, according to a statement from The United States Attorney’s Office Western District of Oklahoma.
But before he was ever arrested on the heinous charges, Exotic talked regularly about wanting Baskin dead — often on shows Kirkham helped produce.
“I had everything on videotape, good, bad and ugly,” Kirkham told the producers of “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” Kirkham claimed he was even in negotiations with an unspecified network to sell the show.
However, a March 2015 fire at the zoo’s production studio destroyed any dreams of Kirkham's reality show taking off.
“I dropped to my knees and I cried,” Kirkham said in the docuseries when he realized the studio burnt down. “I cried because all of our footage was in that studio and I hadn't backed up anything outside the studio.”
The incident also burnt down Exotic and Kirkham’s professional relationship.
The zoo’s park manager, John Reinke, claimed surveillance footage from before the fire appears to show a man who resembles Kirkham approaching the scene, and accused Kirkham of removing his footage from the studio before the place went up in a blaze.
Furthermore, Exotic alleged that Baskin offered Kirkham $20,000 to burn down the studio. While Baskin admitted to conversing with Kirkham, she denied making him any offer. Kirkham also vehemently denied those accusations.
"That's my retirement money that just burned, OK?" he reflected in the docuseries.
A week before the studio burned to the ground, Kirkham said he and Exotic got into an argument over ownership rights of the footage. Additionally, some of the items lost in the fire — hard drives and videotape — were going to be under subpoena.
Nobody has ever been arrested in connection with the fire, although local police told the docuseries it was definitely arson.
So who is Kirkham and where is he now?
In the docuseries, Kirkham left and went back home — which at the time was Dallas, Texas — after his fiery conclusion at Exotic's zoo. He had suffered a nervous breakdown, he told the filmmakers.
In a mysterious coincidence, Kirkham's own house burned down just six months later, killing his dog, New York Magazine reported last year. But even before the crazy “Tiger King” experience and the multiple fires, Kirkham’s life was already quite wild.
The Oklahoma City native was thrust into the spotlight as a dancer on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" by age 16, according to a 2009 ABC News story.
His desire to be near a recording camera all the time, as shown in “Tiger King,” was intuitive to him, as he had started recording his life daily with a video camera at 14.
He got a degree in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma in 1981, according to Kirkham’s LinkedIn profile. Then he took off to Las Vegas to become a crime reporter at an NBC affiliate, according to ABC News. While covering that beat, he often accompanied the police to make drug busts.
"I was running with the nasty boys, licensed to carry a gun and a bulletproof vest," he said in a 2006 documentary about himself called "TV Junkie," released by HBO. But he also began smoking crack during this time.
By 1988, he was hired at the newsmagazine program “Inside Edition” to partake in deadly stunts like being shot out of a cannon or being set on fire. Conservative media personality Bill O'Reilly, who used to work as an anchor on the show, even called his former co-worker Kirkham "nuts" in a clip included in the docuseries.
“I was secretly developing a death wish and taking more and more risks," Kirkham later told ABC News in 2009. "It was kind of a joke with one of my producers that I would go out in a blaze of glory and the world would see it."
While his career skyrocketed, so did his crack cocaine addiction, according to "TV Junkie." He even interviewed then-President George H.W. Bush while high, he recounted to Oprah Winfrey, The Dallas Observer reported in 2007.
By 1996, his addiction caused his professional and personal life to crash. He lost his family and "Inside Edition," along with all his other gigs, fired him. Eventually, he got sober so he could be a good role model for his children.
Following the release of his documentary, Kirkham spoke at schools about the dangers of drug addiction. Kirkham started working as a producer at RealReels in 1999 — where he still works, according to his LinkedIn. He had worked briefly for KFBB-TV in Montana as a news director in 2013, prior to the Joe Exotic fiasco.
Now, according to Kirkham’s Facebook, he lives in Norway, where he works as a freelance reporter, with his new wife. He hasn’t been able to escape the popularity of the show there. He told Joel McHale, the host of “Tiger King and I,” that the local paper put his picture on the front page and that even a walk results in “Tiger King” comments.
Despite the attention he’s been receiving, Kirkham apparently wouldn’t do it all again.
“I regret ever meeting Joe Exotic because I saw there was a great opportunity for an incredibly wonderful show about big animals and this crazy zookeeper but I too was sucked in to the surreal world of Joe Exotic,” he said.
He claimed he still has nightmares about the experience.
“I want to put this chapter away but it keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” he said.
Kirkham is Facebook friends with Baskin. He has not returned Oxygen.com’s request for comment.
"Tiger King" is currently available to stream on Netflix.
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