Inside Joe Exotic’s sad childhood

One thing is for certain: Tiger King is the one of the most outrageous shows to hit a streaming network, like, ever. Netflix’s seven-part docuseries has sparked so many memes that Twitter is a gold mine of laughter right now. (Just look up anything about Joe Exotic’s eyebrow piercing and you’re set.) And while everyone could use a good laugh at the moment, there are some sides of Tiger King that really aren’t funny. 

For starters, the shots of animal abuse and animal deaths are hard to take in, not to mention the rumors that Carole Baskin fed her husband to her tigers. There is definitely a dark side to the popular docuseries.

While some details of it get mentioned in the series, Joe Exotic (born Joe Schreibvogel) had a really sad childhood. Exotic was a survivor of sexual abuse and a loveless home, which only got worse when his father found out he was gay. While it certainly doesn’t excuse the fact that he put a hit on Baskin, for which he is serving 22 years in prison, looking at Exotic’s painful past can shed some light on the eccentric man.

As one of the producers of Tiger King, Rebecca Chaiklin, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: “Joe definitely did some horrible things to his animals. He was very abusive to them and he shot five tigers, no question about it. But what has happened to him has also been hard.”

Joe Exotic's loveless childhood

The Schreibvogel children grew up in Kansas to hardworking German farmers, according to New York Magazine. Joe Exotic felt that his parents saw their children as farmhands and he recalled that no one in his family ever said “I love you” to each other,” according to the outlet.

Exotic claimed to New York Magazine that he was repeatedly raped when he was 5 years old by an older boy and that this happened in his own family home. He noted that a drawer in the bathroom could be opened to hold the door shut.

Exotic’s father moved his family “from Kansas to Wyoming to Texas,” according to New York Magazine, when he decided to raise racehorses instead of farm. Because of this, there was a rootlessness to Exotic’s teen years, as the outlet explained, “Few of Joe’s classmates from those years remember him, and his photo is often missing from his junior-high yearbook.” When he was in high school, Exotic got bullied by jocks, who teased him for hanging out with girls.

Joe Exotic loses his brother and his ex-husband

When Joe Exotic graduated high school in 1982, he went to work in a police station, and at 19, became the chief of police, per Texas Monthly. It was around this time that one of Exotic’s brothers outed him to his parents. In response to hearing his son was gay, Exotic’s father made him shake his hand and promise to not attend his funeral. This pushed Exotic into a dark period where “he attempted suicide by crashing his police cruiser into a concrete bridge embankment at high speed,” according to New York Magazine.

Exotic moved to Florida to undergo physical therapy, and it was during this time that he met a man who worked at an exotic animal park. Exotic got to meet the baby lions and monkeys that this man brought home, according to Texas Monthly. When Exotic managed to recover, he bought a small pet store with his then-husband, Brian Rhyne, and the one sibling he was close to — his older brother, Garold.

Tragically, both men ended up dying. Garold was hit by a drunk driver outside of Dallas in October 1997, and Rhyne died of complications related to HIV in 2001, per New York Magazine. Rhyne died in Exotic’s arms, and when he passed, “Joe screamed loud enough to make your ears ring.”

While Joe Exotic might be wild and eccentric, there’s a thread of sorrow running through his life, tracing all the way back to his childhood.

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