Podcasts are the best medium for telling wild stories, tales with so many ins, outs, and what have yous that the traditional magazine or documentary film format simply couldn’t do them justice. Case in point: “Joe Exotic.”
Released as the second season of Wondery’s Over My Dead Body podcast, Joe Exotic’s title character, formerly Joe Schreibvogel, is a polyamorous gay tiger breeder with a glorious bleached mullet whose promiscuous breeding habits get him into a blood feud with another big cat enthusiast, Carole Baskin. Joe will tell anyone, even journalists and reality TV cameraman, that he hates Baskin, so much that he fantasizes about “seeing her brains on the wall.” He’s not what you’d call “discreet.”
Baskin, in turn, inherited much of the money she put towards her own bobcat lobbying efforts from her former husband, a millionaire who died under mysterious circumstances the day he told friends he was planning to divorce Carole. That’s right, this season’s Over My Dead Body has a second murder mystery just in the prologue.
Joe Exotic, written and hosted by freelance journalist Robert Moor and soundscape-ified by Wondery’s production team, is a departure from Wondery’s usual husband-wife cases like Dirty John and the previous season of Over My Dead Body. It has an expansive, discursive quality Moor calls “fractal weirdness,” where zooming in on any one aspect of the story only makes it weirder and more fascinating. In fact, Moor says he came into it after reading a headline entitled “Michael Jackson’s alligators burned alive in animal park fire” in which Joe Exotic was merely a footnote.
Moor wrote a 10,000-word magazine version of the story in New York Magazine this week that he says barely scratches the surface. But it was perfect for a podcast. And if you ask Moor, that pathological oddness has a lot to do with the kinds of people who are attracted to wild, dangerous, exotic cats in the first place.
“It has something to do with this love of wildness. Imagine if you went through your life and every time you had a decision, you took the risky, exciting option. Your life would take a pretty strange path as well,” Moor says.
I spoke to him this week by phone.
I started the podcast based on the name, and I didn’t really know what I was listening to at first. How do you pitch this? What’s your elevator pitch for this podcast when people ask what it’s about?
That’s one of the hardest parts, because it’s such a sprawling story. But basically I start with Joe. I say, there’s this guy who has this little zoo in Oklahoma. He would breed tigers, and he would breed lions, and he would breed ligers, and he would breed tiligers, and liligers, which are these weird hybrid of tigers and lions that physically exist almost nowhere else on earth. Because of all of this breeding, he ends up in a feud with someone in Florida named Carole Baskin, who is an animal rights activist. This feud escalates until it gets completely out of control.
How did you first hear about the story?
This whole thing starts for me back in 2015. At the time, I was a freelance magazine writer. When you’re a freelancer, you’re always trolling for interesting stories, especially quirky stories. I ran across a headline in the LA Times. It said, “Michael Jackson’s alligators burned alive in zoo fire,” or something like that. I think I was on FARK. You remember FARK.com?
Yeah, of course.
I ran across that, and I clicked on the story, and in there somewhere was this name, “Joe Exotic.” The article really was not about Joe, but through that I started Googling him. Back then there were really no long-form articles about him in major publications. There was one in this Oklahoma publication called This Land, which was a really great article, but there wasn’t much on him, but it was enough to be intrigued — that there was this polyamorous gay man living in a zoo in Oklahoma who was a lightning rod for controversy.
I pitched it to my editor and he said go down there and check it out. So I went down, and I spent five days living at the zoo. Joe gave me a trailer to sleep in, and I basically followed him around all day. At night, we would go out to this diner called Happy Days Diner, and we would have these long, pretty deep conversations, and, to a certain degree, we bonded. We’re both gay, and he had a really rough time of it, growing up gay in Texas and Wyoming in the 70s and 80s.
So I had a certain amount of sympathy for him. But I could tell that he was going completely off the rails in his obsession with this person, Carole Baskin, who I’d never met and had never even heard of. At one point, he told me in front of a group of people, “If my doctor gives me two months to live, I’m going to go to Florida and I’m gonna kill Carole Baskin. I’m going to shoot her in the face. I fantasize about that. I never used to fantasize about seeing someone’s brains on the wall.”
It was one of those really surreal moments where you couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. If someone were plotting a murder, they probably wouldn’t talk about it in front of a journalist with a recorder in his hand, you know? So I thought, “Well, maybe he’s just being this sort of shock-jock thing that he was doing.” I didn’t know what to do with it. I just waited. I came home and I filed the story. The magazine didn’t know what to do with it, so they killed it, and rightly so. The story wasn’t ready. It wasn’t great at that point, because it was just about this strange, wacky guy in Oklahoma.
Then when Joe got arrested, suddenly magazines were interested. So I pitched it around again. One friend at another magazine said, “This doesn’t really want to be a magazine article. This wants to be a podcast. There’s too much here.” If you’ve read the other articles that have been published so far on Joe, I just had a 10,000-word piece come out in New York Magazine this week, and even that, at 10,000 words, wasn’t enough. There’s so much. A lot of stories, the more you tighten them, the more interesting they get. This one is the opposite. Every detail… I call it “fractal weirdness.” It’s like you can zoom in on any detail, and it gets stranger and stranger and much more fascinating.
So he put me in touch with Wondery and we just took off running. I mean, it was a shit load of work, but I was no longer banging my head against the wall, because I probably pitched it to at least 10 or 15 magazines, and Wondery turned out to be the perfect place for it.
What’s going through your head as a journalist when you’re interviewing someone and they’re so clearly digging themselves into a hole with what they’re saying to you?
Yeah, that’s a tough one, right? I try to be an ethical journalist and a sensitive journalist. I don’t think you can do the kind of writing that I do if you’re not someone with a lot of empathy for your subjects. So on the one hand, you’re thinking, “This is great for the story. I can see the quotes on the page, and they will be fascinating.” But then this other part of you that’s the human part, says A) this is a bad idea for Joe to be talking about this, whether he’s serious about it or not, and B) if he’s serious, someone needs to alert the police and alert Carole Baskin, because this is a very dangerous situation. But it was one of those things where it didn’t seem real.
One of the things about Joe’s zoo is when you walk in the door, there were cameras rolling on you from the moment you walked in. He had a camera crew with him all the time. So from the first moment you’re there, nothing feels real. It all feels like entertainment. It feels like reality television in that queasy, semi-real way reality TV has.
So when Joe said, “I’m going to go kill someone,” you don’t think he’s serious about it any more than you would on a reality TV show. You think he’s trying to provoke, or at least that’s what I thought. But then as time went on, and he did this not just to me, he did this on social media. He would talk about killing Carole all the time on social media. No one took it seriously.
Carole tried to file a restraining order against him at one point, and they wouldn’t grant it to her unless he physically assaulted her. It turns out the Feds were keeping an eye on it, but at least from Carole’s perspective and from my perspective, it seemed like no one was taking it that seriously. Then you later find out that, in fact, the Feds had been watching him for years and had been, in fact, planning a sting operation with the hitman.
That’s another thing, you go into this story thinking that Joe is the kooky one, but then you go back into Carole’s backstory, and she is equally compelling. What are some of the bullet points of Carole’s fractal weirdness?
Carole Baskin, she ran away from home when she was 15 years old and hitchhiked up and down the coast. She gets married when she’s 17 to this guy. During this time, she was already obsessed with cats. She loved wild cats, bobcats — she just had a love for these wild, difficult cats. That love, I think, of wildness and adventure, extended over into her life and the decisions she makes. She gets into a fight with her husband when she’s 19. So she storms off, and she’s walking down the road, and this guy pulls up with a gun on the passenger side seat, and says, “Hey, do you want to get in? You can hold the gun on me, and that way you’ll feel safe.” 99 out of 100 people, maybe 999 out of 1,000 people, would not get into that car, but Carole did, because she thought, “This is not boring.”
So she got into the car and started having an affair with this man, Don Lewis. He turned out to be a millionaire, but didn’t tell her that at first. Eventually, she ended up marrying him. Then in 1997, I think, he mysteriously disappeared, and that case has never been solved. In the aftermath, she inherits all the land where they had built this menagerie of cats. And she has a kind of awakening where she realizes they actually shouldn’t be keeping cats in cages and shouldn’t be breeding them. So she becomes this crusader to try to stop people from breeding exotic cats in captivity. That’s how she comes into conflict eventually with Joe Exotic.
Do you think there’s something inherent to exotic cats that attracts kooky people?
Yeah. I do. I don’t know if I’d use the word “kooky” necessarily, but like, extreme people, because if you think about it, over the course of thousands of years, we’ve bred cats to love us, to the extent that a cat loves us. We bred them to be kind to us, to not hurt us, to need us. Exotic cats have none of those qualities. It’s something about that roughness and that wildness and that danger that attracts these people to them. They don’t want the easy thing. They want the hard thing. I think that that logic extends to their life. When they come to a fork in the road, and there’s an easy, safe choice and a difficult, scary choice, they tend to take the difficult, scary one every time, and it makes their lives really wild.
People keep telling me when they hear the story, “I cannot believe these are real people. I can’t believe this really happened.” The only way I can explain it is, it has something to do with this love of wildness. Imagine if you went through your life, and every time you had a decision, you took the risky, exciting option. Your life would take a pretty strange path as well.
What’s been the process of doing a podcast, not really having a background in it?
It’s pretty amazing what they do. It’s such a strange thing, as a writer, to make a podcast, and write these sentences and then go into the booth and record them, and then it goes away, and it comes back supercharged, with all of the sound design and all this emotion. It’s such a strange experience. It’s really amazing. It’s your story, but it’s in Technicolor. It’s really fun.