Friend of Joe Exotic is surprised by ‘Tiger King’ mania, but says it’s a true story

By Michael Kinney

Michael Kinney Media

While much of the world has been focused on the terrible coronavirus pandemic that has swept around the globe, there has been very little room for any other news to fit into the social consciousness. Everything else of consequence has faded into the background.

That is except for one thing. Somehow the breakout Netflix hit ‘Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness’ has found a way to infiltrate social media without any type of old-school watercooler talk.

With much of the country either locked down or in self-isolation, the Tiger King has become a smash hit for Netflix.

Based in Oklahoma, the tagline for the documentary states “A zoo owner spirals out of control amid a cast of eccentric characters in this true murder-for-hire story from the underworld of big cat breeding.”

For anyone who has watched all seven episodes of the Tiger King, even that tag line doesn’t do it justice. The story of Joe Exotic (Joseph Maldonado-Passage) aka the Tiger King, is filled with comical moments, high drama, varying degrees of sexual relationships and the possibility of a tiger eating a human.

Exotic is currently serving a 22-year sentence in Grady County Jail after being convicted of 17 counts of animal abuse and two counts of murder-for-hire.

While Joe Exotic is the main character in the documentary, his world is full of people that come in and out of his life. Some of them make cameos in the film.

That includes JP Wilson, who is an entrepreneur, magician, photographer and restaurant owner in and around Oklahoma City. Outside of Oklahoma, he may be best well-known for showing off his magic skills at halftime of NBA games across the country under The Magic of JP Wilson.

Wilson has been friends with Joe Exotic since he was a freshman in high school. During that time he also toured with Exotic’s animal show and also helped him run for governor of Oklahoma.

Wilson watched the entire documentary and I wanted to get his unique insights on the film, the social media hysteria surrounding it and the man he still calls his friend.

So we had a little Q&A to discuss it all and a little more.

Michael Kinney: First of all, what was your overall impression of the Netflix documentary Tiger King?

JP Wilson: “I thought Tiger King was a fantastic documentary, very well put together and thoroughly planned. The documentary portrayed everyone that I knew in the series very true to life, granted I think that’s the only time I’ve ever seen John Finlay with his shirt off. That was weird. Joe truly became larger than life at the park and customers would be just as excited to get a photo with Joe as they would be a tiger cub.”

Kinney: What part of the film stood out to you the most?

Wilson:  “The other zookeepers and owners from around the country were definitely a standout to me. I’ve heard of Doc Antle from Joe, never met the guy.  He seems very passionate about the animals and his zoo. His personal life, who knows if that is just sensationalized or true. And Carole Baskin, I’ve heard about her for years from Joe.  I’ve heard this story about her killing her husband and feeding him to tigers for as long as I can remember. It’s so funny to see everyone posting and talking about that now.”

Kinney: What did you think when you saw yourself for the first time in the Tiger King?

Wilson: “I had a very brief cameo in the first episode. The crew did capture several hours of footage of me for the documentary. Including me driving around Oklahoma City in my Porsche with Bono, my Savannah cat.  I’m not sure how much of it truly applied to the ending documentary that’s now on Netflix. I don’t believe I fit the type of many other people in the show, and I take that as a compliment. I did first meet Joe performing magic shows. I did magic in his theatre shows while he would display animals and educate the public about them.  Great show, sometimes very long as well. A few shows would last over three hours because Joe had so many animals to show. There was also a country singer in the show whose name was Ashley Wheeler. We would sell out theaters across Oklahoma and people loved the show.”

Kinney: Are you surprised by the reaction of the Tiger King around the country?

Wilson: “I am very shocked and surprised at the amount of attention this documentary has received. I never would have guessed that there would be this type of reaction to a documentary about Joe Exotic.  When he ran for governor, I had his campaign materials at my restaurant in Moore. We were an official campaign merchandise pick up location. There were some excited people to pick up shirts, but I always had an excess of them. Many people chose not to take one. But now, everyone I know is texting me and wanting one of his campaign shirts. Everywhere you turn there is a Joe Exotic meme for every situation. I’m sure he is thrilled to be such a household name now.”

Kinney: What do you think has drawn people to not only watch the film but become enthralled in the life of Joe Exotic?

Wilson: “I think so many people from outside Oklahoma are drawn to this because of how crazy the story is.  Every twist and turn is outdone just a few minutes later. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, there is something crazier just around the corner.  I also think so many people in Oklahoma are surprised by it because after seeing so much about Joe Exotic over the years they are now seeing people in the Big Cat industry that make Joe look like the normal one of the group. Shocking to Oklahomans, I’m sure.”

Kinney: How did you come to know Joe Exotic?

Wilson: “I first met Joe exotic while doing a magic show in Norman. He had supplied a tiger for the show. While there I began talking to him and he wanted to do his own theater shows and a few months later they were on the road and performing shows. I was only 14 or 15 at the time. A freshman in high school. So I would have to leave school early on a Friday So that my dad could drive me to the show along with all of my props. We would do a Friday night show and most of the time also a Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening show. If it had been very popular, they were times we would stay and also perform an encore show Sunday as well. Joe was always a showman and he did even sing one or two songs during the show as well.”

Kinney: What there a side to Joe Exotic that maybe wasn’t shown in the documentary?

Wilson: “Outside of the show he was always willing to help the community. He would host school groups at the park and participate in nonprofit work as well. My neighbor was in the OU Children’s Hospital for a very long time back in 2012 and to help make one of the days there a little better for him, Joe brought a tiger up to the hospital so that Tyler could come to meet her and take a photo with her. Right one the front steps of the hospital. It was a sight to see.  Joe would continuously donate playtimes, tickets, group tours for nonprofit and charity events to auction off as well to help raise funds for their own causes. I had picnics at the park several times a year for friends and customers of mine.  We would come down after the park had closed and brought food to cook for everyone, including Joe and his staff. Joe would personally give everyone a tour of the park and also tell them stories about each animal and where they were rescued from or how they were rescued as well. When I first became friends with Joe, the park was primarily for rescue animals that he would take in. These are animals that had been abused by roadside circuses, had been purchased by people who had no idea what they were doing. For example, there was one monkey in the park that a person had bought and kept inside of a closet for its entire life. Joe rescued the monkey and gave him a fantastic place to live to finish out the rest of his life. Another example was a bear who would move around to look like he was dancing.  It was a bear he had rescued from a roadside circus. The bear had been trained on hot coals to move his feet around to look like he was dancing. The park was filled with stories like this. Animals that he had rescued from terrible situations and supplied them with a place to live.  In my opinion, this is why Joe was forced into making breeding a normal practice. He needed money to support how large the park had grown. Joe’s mall tours and educational shows had been great resources to raise funds for the park. As Carole Baskin began to create trouble for Joe and the places he would perform, Joe had to find new ways to create funds to support all of the animals at the park.”

Kinney: Does the Tiger King give an accurate portrayal of all the characters involved?

Wilson: “From my experiences that I know of, Tiger King did a great job of focusing on many truths that existed and showing them for the world to see. I don’t know all of the characters or everything that happened so I can’t say everything is factual. But I didn’t see anything misrepresented that I knew to be wrong personally. I wish they had shown a little more about Joe from the beginning because there was a clear progression from the Joe 16 years ago into the Joe today.  The park grew, his performances grew, the park became more popular. Joe became more popular, on and on. From the very beginning, Joe was very informative and compassionate about the animals. He worked very hard and long hours to ensure the animals had a great life.”

Kinney: What do you hope people who watch the film get out of it the most?

Wilson: “I hope this brings awareness that there are many people in the big cat industry who do abuse animals and are hypocrites.  But just because some are, not everyone is.  In all of my experiences with Joe, I never witnessed or saw anything happen detrimental to the animals.  He was always on the lookout for the safety and well-being of all animals in his park.”

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Michael Kinney Media

Is the U.S. following the same path as Italy? A former journalist believes so

(Photo by Michael Kinney)
In this 2016 photo, the streets of Rome were filled with tourists. But 2020 has been a different story due to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

By Michael Kinney

Michael Kinney Media Services 

Six years ago when John Henderson moved to Italy, it was the start of a new chapter in his life. After spending 40 years as a sportswriter, he planned to live out his retirement years in Rome.

When Henderson arrived in 2014, Rome was everything he could imagine and more. It was literally a dream come true for him.

However, the 66-year-old Henderson said living in Italy now in the age of the coronavirus is more like being an extra in a film.

“It was like a science fiction movie because every day you wake up and you see a map of Italy, and the little red ball that represents the virus keeps growing bigger and bigger and darker and darker,” Henderson said.

Since early February, Henderson has been living in what many consider the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. The place that he now calls his home has been ravaged more than any other country.

As of March 25, the total number of deaths throughout the globe reached 20,896, according to worldometer.info. Italy by itself has accounted for 7,503 deaths — 4,216 more than China, which was the next closest.

“You hear all these horror stories. Like I have a friend of mine in Bologna. She works with a woman who watched her mother die from the other side of a pane of glass at the hospital,” Henderson said. “She basically just died alone and it’s a horrible way to die.”

After seeing consecutive days of the fatality rates dropping over the weekend, it looked like Italy was starting to coming out of the other side. However, those hopes were dashed when the death toll rose to 743 on March 24, the second deadliest day of the pandemic. Another 683 deaths were reported the next day.

“The doctors in the hospitals are so overwhelmed,” Henderson said. “And the doctors, they’re so understaffed now because of the number of cases. Doctors are having to decide basically who lives and who dies because some if they have to decide between saving an older person and a younger one, they’re going to save the younger one because there’s not enough respirators.”

In terms of fatality rates, the United States is far behind the total numbers of both Italy and China with 910 total deaths reported as of March 25. That is the sixth most of any country in the world.

However, according to Henderson, the United States is on the same trajectory as Italy and making many of the same mistakes. That includes not getting a nationwide lock-down in place sooner and people just not taking the scope of the virus seriously.

Because of that, Henderson says the country is in for some dark days ahead.

“That’s why all these people were running around America on the beaches and golf courses and gyms and bars, restaurants — they have no idea what they’re doing to their country,” Henderson said. “This thing is going to explode in America. There’s going to be, I predict, a tsunami of death within the next two or three weeks. They are late on this. They’re asleep at the switch on doing something about it.”

Henderson said once Americans get a look at the true face of what COVID-19 can do, it may be too late.

“I think if people in America understood how you die from this thing, they’d be more cognizant of keeping their distance and making sure they don’t get this thing,” Henderson said. “What happens is it starts off with a dry cough and a fever like a flu, and then it escalates, and when it gets really bad, you have a really hard time breathing and then your lungs fill with fluids. If you’re not in the hospital, an ICU where they can drain the fluids, you basically drown in bed.”

When Henderson, who now works as a part-time travel writer and movie extra, first started to hear about the coronavirus, he had no idea it would get to where it is now.

“It was in early February when China was starting to freak out about it,” Henderson said. “And I didn’t think much of it. I’ll be honest with you. I thought it was going to get contained. It started getting bigger, and of course I didn’t think it was going to hit like this, but I was wary of it.”

But, in the course of a few days, Henderson started to see just what his country was going to be dealing with. It was when he returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia and witnessed how much the mentality had changed by Feb. 17.

“I also remember there was a lot of people in Saudi Arabia wearing masks even though Saudi Arabia, at that point, did not have a confirmed case,” Henderson said. “There was no scare at all. But people walking around, the Saudis were walking around with masks just in case. And my hotel had masks available, so I picked one up just in case. And sure enough, I was using it within a few days after I returned back to Rome.”

As the pandemic spread, the entire country of Italy went into lock-down March 11. Henderson has been in isolation since March 8, only making trips to the grocery store when needed. He says he showed no symptoms of the virus during his self-quarantine.

However, Henderson will not be able to see his girl for another week because she began her isolation later.

Henderson doesn’t know what the future holds. He’s still worried that even if the world gets past this round of the pandemic, the coronavirus has the potential to keep coming back.

However, Henderson knows when they are finally past all of this horror, the world is going to party for a long time. And when it does, he will be right where he belongs.

“This is my home now,” Henderson said of Italy. “My heart is here, my soul is here. I’ll never leave.”

Michael Kinney is a Freelance Content Provider with Michael Kinney Media

Athletes see careers end as NCAA deals with Coronavirus scare

By Michael Kinney

In response to the Coronavirus-19 pandemic that has infiltrated the sports world, the NCAA announced Thursday that they were canceling all of its winter championships this season. That includes the women’s and men’s basketball, wrestling and gymnastics.

Soon after, the University of Oklahoma announced it was suspending all athletics competitions, as well as all out-of-season practices and workouts, until further notice.

“The health and welfare, safety of all the people we serve is the paramount focus of all of our deliberations and decision making,” said OU athletic director Joe Castiglione. “ I also want you to know we’ve been in constant contact with our campus leaders, most notably our interim president, Joe Harroz, and our conference leaders, and by extension, those on the national level. We’ve quickly triangulated and shared information as it was gathered and utilized it in trying to arrive at the best possible decisions. As you can imagine and have witnessed, things are evolving and have evolved rapidly. We’re trying to provide information back to you as best we can.”

The announcements ended the stellar careers of several Sooners, including Kristian Doolittle and Maggie Nichols.

Doolittle, a senior on the men’s basketball team took to social media to express his feelings.

“Wild to think it’s over this way,” Doolittle posted on Twitter. “But these past four years have been all I could dream of and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to represent my school and state to the best of my ability!! Thank you for all of the support!!”

Nichols is one of the most decorated women’s gymnasts to ever come through Oklahoma. She is a six-time individual national champion, 13-time NCAA All-American and 12-time WCGA All-American.

Nichols was looking forward to winning a third national championship with the top-ranked Sooners.

“Devastating,” Nichols stated, “absolutely devastating.”

Along with the winter championships that have been canceled, the NCAA has also canceled spring championships, which just began. Castiglione, who held a teleconference Thursday night, addressed the situation.

“We certainly understood the decisions taking place about winter championships,” Castiglione said. “We’re not altogether sure why championships, that wouldn’t occur till much later in spring/summer, are canceled now.”

However, the next day the NCAA Council Coordination Committee said it “agreed that it will be appropriate to grant relief for the use of a season of competition for student-athletes who have participated in spring sports.”

The decision grants athletes in Beach volleyball (women), golf (men, women), baseball, lacrosse (m, w), rowing (w), softball, tennis (m, w), outdoor track (m, w), men’s volleyball  water polo (women) another year of eligibility. But, as always, it’s the details that need to be hashed out. Such as how will this affect roster sizes, scholarship limits and financial aid.

As for the rest of the 2020 spring campaign, championship tournaments are gone, the regular season could be picked back up at some point.

“The NCAA championships have now been eliminated. So we’ll probably talk about whether the conference would even sponsor a championship,” Castiglione said. “And if that decision is made, where all conference championships have been suspended, then we’ll get to the question of why would we have any competition. That would start. Long period of time to try to explain all of that. That’s why we need to continue to talk about this regularly, because at some point in the very near future, people are going to want to know the answer to the question.”

Even though Oklahoma has yet to cancel the football team’s spring game, which still remains a distinct option.

“That remains a possibility for sure. But what we’re trying to do is work through these time segments. If elapse that in other parts of the collegiate world, there are decisions being made to cancel seasons altogether,” Castiglione said. “And while we have not reached that stage yet in our own conference, that could change at any point. We’re just giving you the information as we know it right this minute. We definitely understand things could change, but that’s more than a month away, and I think a decision about the spring game isn’t as important right now as making prudent decisions in other cases. We realize that some might disagree, but we’re trying to take them in the right order here. If we’re going to continually delay the start of — the continuation, I should say, of spring practice, then obviously we would quickly decide whether we would change the date of the spring game or eliminate it altogether.”

Michael Kinney is a Freelance Content Provider with Michael Kinney Media

 

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