Long before Netflix made Joe Exotic a household name as the Tiger King, he was Joe Schreibvogel the Arlington pet store owner.
Now known by his married name, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, the 57-year-old former owner of an Oklahoma exotic-animal park is in federal custody, serving a 22-year sentence after he was convicted in January of violating the Endangered Species Act, falsifying wildlife records and scheming to have a hit man kill a rival who owns a big-cat sanctuary in Florida.
He has become an immediate sensation as people who are stuck at home through the coronavirus crisis have flocked to the weird, wild Netflix documentary series Tiger King.
But the infamous man with an equally famous mullet had a long history in North Texas before he owned his first tiger.
Small-town police chief
In 1982, at age 19, Schreibvogel graduated from Pilot Point High School and was named police chief of Eastvale, a small Denton County town that consolidated with The Colony in 1987.
The town of about 700 people, on the east shore of Lewisville Lake, had financial troubles and declared itself blighted in 1984 so it could try to get state or federal aid. The water system was unreliable, the roads were undriveable and the sewage situation was unbearable.
In a letter, Schreibvogel wrote that failing police equipment was only one reason officers were struggling.
“Items that are attached to vehicles keep falling off, and they have either been replaced or repaired,” he said. “And we are unable to tell if we have an intoxicated driver because citizens have to drive on the wrong side of the road half the time so they can miss the large holes.”
He left law enforcement the following year after an incident he later said nearly cost him his life.
He has said that he was critically injured during a drug investigation, when someone forced his car off a bridge.
He said he was in a coma for nine days and suffered broken bones in his back, right arm, right leg, ribs, shoulder and nose.
After six months in a hospital, he moved to Florida for rehabilitation, he said. He had to wear leg and body braces for five years, he told The Dallas Morning News in 1997.
“I nearly died for $1,600 a month and trying to be fair,” he said. “That’s why I stick up for the underdog.”
Schreibvogel said the incident left him apprehensive about law enforcement.
“I have no desire to be a police officer again,” he said. “I pity the honest ones, and I’m afraid of the dishonest ones.”
The veracity of his story is unclear, though. He also has said the crash was a suicide attempt, and residents didn’t remember it happening at all, New York magazine reported.
After a couple of years in Florida, Schreibvogel returned to North Texas and got a job as a security guard at the Round-Up Saloon in Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood, according to New York.
It was at the Round-Up where he met his first partner, Brian Rhyne, and the two moved to Arlington together. (Rhyne died of complications from HIV in 2001.)
Schreibvogel started working at Pet Safari, a pet store in Arlington’s Fielder Plaza that he eventually bought.
In the summer of 1993, his store was the target of two snake snatchings.
Schreibvogel said he was a bit puzzled by the crime because the thief broke in and took seven of what a News reporter called “pretty average snakes” — a red-tailed boa constrictor and six pythons, none of them especially valuable. He said the burglaries led him to sleep in the store with guns, just in case.
A few weeks later, police arrested an 18-year-old and recovered three of the snakes, though one of them later died.
According to Schreibvogel, the 8-foot-long boa constrictor, named Scooby, and the other snake showed signs of mistreatment.
Schreibvogel returned to the pages of The News in 1997, claiming that local officials were harassing his business. He also spoke out about his sexuality and asserted that it might be why the city seemed to be targeting him.
In a letter to the editor that March advocating for candidates in local elections, he wrote that he had been repeatedly cited for using portable signs, having cigarette butts in his parking lot and putting a strobe light in his store window.
Schreibvogel, 34 at the time, said Arlington needed to take better care of its small-business owners.
“It’s time people spoke up, and I’m leading the pack,” he wrote.
Three months later he spoke to a reporter after a gay and lesbian group’s family day at Six Flags Over Texas bothered some area Southern Baptists.
“The prejudice needs to stop. Why shouldn’t gays enjoy a family day without prejudice?” he said. “You don’t choose this life. This is the way you’re born.”
Schreibvogel closed Pet Safari and opened a new store, Super Pets, in the same shopping plaza that summer.
The city continued to target him, he said, because he put up U.S. flags with rainbow stripes and hung rainbow bunting. He said he had been cited 18 times and received even more warnings.
“It’s a shame that they’re homophobic,” he said. “They’re trying to find any excuse to run me out of business.”
Arlington officials said they were merely enforcing an ordinance he continued to violate, but the store owner didn’t see it that way.
“To me, there’s no difference between my flags and the flags that the car lots and other businesses have,” he said. “A lot of it’s got to do with the fact that I’m very outspoken and I’m gay.”
Schreibvogel talked to a lawyer to make sure his flags, which he said attracted customers, were in compliance with city ordinances.
“The city inspectors had better not jack with me,” he said.
The emu tragedy
When animal-welfare investigators found a flock of emaciated emus, along with dozens of dead birds, in Red Oak in February 1999, Schreibvogel offered the animals a new home at an Oklahoma sanctuary his parents had established in memory of his brother.
“His lifetime dream was to go to Australia,” the emus’ native land, Schreibvogel said of G.W. Schreibvogel, who died in a traffic accident near Dallas in 1997. (The animal sanctuary became the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, or G.W. Zoo, featured in Tiger King.)
Rounding up the large birds proved to be difficult, however.
Schreibvogel, volunteers, police and members of the Red Oak High School FFA “found themselves struggling against birds almost as tall as humans and capable of tremendous kicks with taloned feet,” The News reported as the roundup began.
Several people suffered minor injuries, and nine of the captured birds died, stressed and overcrowded in trailers.
A day later, police and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals members were shocked when Schreibvogel and another man used a shotgun to kill several of the emus, saying it was more humane than putting them through the ordeal of being captured and moved.
Video footage of the incident showed Schreibvogel and Jim Claytor walking up to the birds and shooting them one at a time. Some died instantly, others flopped around and required more than one shot.
“You can’t come out here and say, ‘I’m going to save all these birds,’ then say, ‘I’ve got to kill them because I’m getting tired,’” said an exasperated Red Oak Police Chief Doug McHam.
But because the birds were considered livestock, they were allowed to be killed humanely. Schreibvogel and Claytor were allowed to use officers’ shotguns because they were considered more likely to kill the birds quickly than the men’s small-caliber weapons.
Margaret Pounder, then president of the American Emu Association, called the incident “a travesty” that could have been avoided.
Schreibvogel ended up signing over custody of about 160 of the surviving birds to a ranch owner in Hood County. A Gainesville couple took custody of several others.
Red Oak police referred the case to an Ellis County grand jury, which declined to indict Schreibvogel on animal-cruelty charges.
Back in Dallas-Fort Worth
Not long afterward, Schreibvogel sold his pet store, claiming that negative publicity from the emu incident had hurt his business.
He eventually moved to the Oklahoma sanctuary, where much of the story of Tiger King is set.
Now known by his married name, Joe Maldonado-Passage recently returned to North Texas when he was transferred to the Fort Worth Federal Medical Center. His husband says he is in quarantine because there were cases of COVID-19 at his previous facility.
Maldonado-Passage also recently filed a federal lawsuit that seeks nearly $94 million from numerous people and government entities, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
The lawsuit names the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of the Interior and witnesses against him among the defendants. His slew of allegations includes discrimination, entrapment, false imprisonment and perjury. No hearings have been set.