Following the success of Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, the Netflix docuseries about multiple rivalries within the extremely lucrative and illegal business of exotic animal breeding, Rick Kirkham is finally sharing his side of the story. In the Investigation Discovery special, The Truth Behind Joe Exotic: The Rick Kirkham Story, the filmmaker details untold truths about life at Joe Exotic’s wild animal zoo and what he’s up to now that Netflix has catapulted him, Exotic and all the other colorful characters into the spotlight.
Fans of the Netflix docuseries may recall that Kirkham, who rose to notoriety with the Sundance documentary TV Junkie and his work as an on-camera reporter, became intertwined with Exotic after he agreed to be filmed for a reality TV series. Kirkham and his film crew started documenting everything the zoo owner did around the park, from antics with his many tigers to his ever-evolving interactions with his employees.
Initially, Kirkham took a liking to Exotic, who referred to himself as the “gay redneck cowboy” and had no shame about his wild but endearing personality. And like many that came to work on Exotic’s zoo, the filmmaker was enticed by the fact that he could get as close to any of the animals as he wanted. “Closer than any zoo,” he says.
But it didn’t take long for things to change between the two. “After a few months of working with him, I started seeing the real Joe Exotic,” Kirkham says, adding that he believed Exotic was not the lover of animals that he claimed to be.
Kirkham claims he also witnessed -- and documented on camera -- various animal abuses by Exotic. One story he recounts is that a woman pleaded with Exotic for him to take her horse because she couldn’t afford to take care of it anymore. Not soon after she left, Kirkham claims Exotic “pulled the gun out of his holster, shot the horse dead in the trailer … and he had a couple of guys come over with chainsaws,” who chopped it up and fed it to the tigers.
“I knew right then and there that this is not a good guy,” Kirkham says before recalling another incident involved an 18-foot python that Exotic allegedly used to wrestle around with. Soon after it died, the filmmaker claims the zoo owner chopped it up and fed it to his tigers.
Kirkham also claims that he saw Exotic give “animal drugs” to the other caretakers as well as let alligators bite on the nipples of college kids who came to the zoo.
The end of their relationship, however, was the result of a heated contract dispute over the reality show Kirkham was producing with Exotic. After their fight, the filmmaker claims that Exotic left town for two days. “He changed the lock on the studio door and I couldn’t get in the next morning,” Kirkham alleges. “Two days later, the studio burned to the ground.”
The arson was also detailed in the Netflix documentary, which revealed that the studio was connected to the alligator farm and that all the reptiles living inside were killed in the fire. On top of that, everything Kirkham had filmed was gone.
Kirkham was left devastated. He immediately grabbed his dog and drove to Dallas, Texas. “I never went back,” he says, adding: “My retirement went up in flames.”
Now, Kirkham is married and lives in a small Norway village, where he fled for his sanity and safety. While he temporarily escaped everything of his past, the Netflix documentary brought it all back. It was so successful that even Kirkham’s psychiatrist brought it up during their sessions. “For me, it’s brought back a lifetime of bullsh*t memories,” he says.
Since the documentary’s debut, it’s been revealed that Exotic is now behind bars, serving out a 22-year sentence after being found guilty of being involved in a murder-for-hire plot and committing several wildlife violations.
“I think Joe got everything he deserved. I think karma came and bit him in the a**,” Kirkham says, adding: “He treated people worse than he treated animals and he didn’t treat animals very good at all.”