Joe Exotic says he's fighting cancer, meeting fans and enjoying the food in Santa Rosa Jail

Escambia County: Joe Exotic says he's fighting cancer, meeting fans and enjoying the food in Santa Rosa Jail

Mollye Barrows
Pensacola News Journal
April 2, 2024

Joe Maldonado, or as he is more commonly known, “Tiger King” or “Joe Exotic,” is making the most of his time at the Santa Rosa County Jail in Milton to advocate for his freedom and get some good eats.

The infamous star of the Netflix documentary series, "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," is in Northwest Florida while he awaits a hearing on a civil lawsuit he filed over trademark infringement.

Maldonado launched a civil lawsuit against musician Vince Johnson and several businesses over alleged copyright infringement and breaches of confidentially agreements related to "musical compositions that contractually belong to Maldonado."

“I'll never get a dime out of him, but I want a judgment to prove to the world that he was full of crap, and these are my songs, and that is me performing,” Maldonado explained about why he filed.

While he waits for his hearing on April 23, the 61-year-old celebrity has plenty of people to keep him company.

He is one of the jail’s most popular inmates, with video and phone call requests coming in constantly from people all over Northwest Florida and beyond who want to talk one-on-one with the former zoo owner and big cat handler about the court cases that put him behind bars, among other topics.

Anyone who follows Maldonado on social media is familiar with his posts encouraging fans to reach out to him in the Santa Rosa County Jail as well as to donate to his commissary account. The News Journal spoke with Maldonado in a jailhouse interview over the phone.

“I am shocked how popular I am down here for only living here three months,” Maldonado said. “But let me tell you, this video machine is going off every 15 minutes. I'm almost ashamed because the other inmates don't get to use this video machine enough because I'm constantly on it from people calling in.”

Who’s calling? You name it. They include media, friends, and true crime fans who followed the Netflix docuseries featuring eight episodes that focused on Joe Exotic and other prominent cat conservationists, such as Carole Baskins, owner of Big Cat Rescue, and Jeff Lowe, who formerly operated the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park.

Mostly, though, it’s locals who are excited to speak with the friendly, personable inmate.

“I accepted a video request two days ago, and here pops up to two female sheriffs in uniform to come and support me because they think I'm innocent,” said Maldonado, asking for help with the pronunciation of Escambia County, where he said they worked. “It was so funny because they showed me a picture on their police car that they have a sticker that says ‘Carol Baskin did it.’”


In April 2019, Maldonado was found guilty on two counts of hiring someone to kill Baskin, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act by falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act after it was discovered that he killed five tigers and sold tigers across state lines.

All charges Maldonado denies, saying he was “kidnapped by the Department of the Justice,” and he is a “political prisoner” because of his push to support laws protecting big cats.

When he was arrested for the murder-for-hire plot in 2018, Maldonado and his then husband, Dillon Passage, had just moved to Gulf Breeze, Florida, he said, for a fresh start. Maldonado said at the time he wanted to get away from his zoo in Oklahoma where there was “criminal activity” being committed by others.

“Me and Dillon, when we first wanted to move down to Florida to the beach, we actually went down to Panama City and in the Tampa area and everything else,” Maldonado described. “And we came back, we just fell in love with the beauty of Pensacola. The beaches are so pretty. The water is so clear. The people were so friendly. We rented a house, and I got a job washing dishes at Peg Leg Pete’s on the beach and I was perfectly happy. Three months later, they still came after me.”

Maldonado said he never got a chance to wash one dish for the Pensacola Beach restaurant because he was arrested on what was to be his first day on the job. However, besides the beach, he also explored downtown Pensacola before his arrest. He said enjoyed the hopping entertainment district which he described as “kind of like Mardi Gras Street.”

Whether it was his short-lived time as a Northwest Florida resident, or the fame and notoriety Maldonado derived from the true crime docuseries, fans are filling up his phone lines as well as his appetite.

Maldonado, who has been serving his 21-year prison sentence at the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, said he has been isolated and hasn’t enjoyed much company or good food in years, but that all changed at the Santa Rosa County Jail. Fridays are known as “Fresh Fridays” at the facility because inmates can receive fresh favorites and care packages.

“Last Friday was the first time I've had real world food in six years,” Maldonado said. “The people of Pensacola sent me those hamburgers that you can buy on Fridays, and me and the other inmates ate hamburgers on Friday. It was amazing. I'm looking forward to the next three Fridays before I have to go back to Texas.” 


Maldonado said he hasn’t had any trouble getting along with other inmates, no matter where he has been incarcerated, even when he was housed in the cell next to the "Unabomber," Ted Kaczynski, at Butner federal prison in North Carolina for five months.

“I've opened up my home and my park to people that were homeless and everything else, and even in prison. I've been in prison going on six years now, and I've never had a problem with an inmate,” Maldonado said

He doesn’t want to stay an inmate though. His hearing on the trademark infringement lawsuit is scheduled for the morning of April 23 at the federal courthouse in downtown Pensacola. At 9 a.m., Maldonado said he is encouraging people to come for a peaceful protest to “Free Joe Exotic.”

He’s inviting the public and U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz to attend in hopes it will get the president’s attention and result in a pardon.

Maldonado has already beaten prostate cancer in prison but said he has now been diagnosed with lung cancer. He said he doesn’t want to undergo the misery of cancer treatment alone behind bars again, so he’s refusing medical treatment for now. He said the goal of this lawsuit and the protest is to “get his life back” and clear his name.

“If God wants me to die of cancer, I'm going to die of cancer, or I'm going to beat this case, or President Biden's going to wake the hell up and admit that I'm wrongfully detained,” Maldonado said.

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