Tiger King’s John Finlay says Netflix ‘wanted more drama than truth’

John Finlay spoke to USF students about his life at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park and “the truth” behind his appearance in the Netflix docuseries. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/ZOOM

John Finlay, one of the personalities behind Netflix’s “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,”  explained “the truths” behind the successful docuseries Thursday evening in a Zoom Q&A with USF students — and this time with a shirt on.

About 100 students, faculty and staff lined up the Zoom video screen typing away in the chat box hoping to get their questions answered by Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage’s first ex-husband.

USF Sarasota-Manatee’s Campus Activities Board hosted the Zoom Q&A but it wasn’t the typical speaker-audience interaction one would expect since it had to be conducted remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though there were muted microphones and the usual laughter, gasps and applause weren’t heard, the students still seemed excited, nonetheless, to type out their questions and reactions.

With over 30 people commenting Big Cat Rescue owner Carole Baskin’s name in the chat box, it was no surprise that the most anticipated question was: “Do you think Carole Baskin killed her husband?”

The docuseries follows Maldonado-Passage and Baskin’s yearslong feud about the care of exotic animals. Baskin’s nonprofit zoo is located in Tampa — 25 minutes from the USF Tampa campus.

But, it was also speculated in episode three, “The Secret,” that Baskin was responsible for the disappearance of her late husband, Don Lewis.

About 45 minutes into the Q&A, Finlay was able to give them what they all wanted to know.

“[The producers] made it look like [Baskin] actually did it and nobody knows who did it because the case has been reopened,” Finlay said. “I do not know Carol Baskin personally and I do not speak ill of people I don’t know.

“I don’t say whether she did it or not because I don’t know and it’s an open investigation.”

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office reopened the case after the show was released.

Finlay’s thoughts about the seven-part series didn’t stop there.

The first 45 minutes of the Q&A were moderated by Sarasota-Manatee Governor-elect Joshua Ghansiam, in which the two talked about Finlay’s life at Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park and his appearance in the series.

When the producers reached out to him about the show, he thought it would be more focused on the zoo and the animals.

“It wasn’t exactly what they projected for us to be — it was more drama than it was the truth or real,” Finlay said. “Don’t get me wrong, the Joe and Carole thing was real, and I was involved in that, but it wasn’t what they actually showed on [Netflix] because it was much worse than it actually was.”

Along with his own portrayal, Finlay didn’t think the others were given a chance to share their stories.

“I don’t know if that was intentional or what, but they didn’t let a lot of people get their stories out,” Finlay said. “They didn’t really go into the backgrounds of the different people.”

Specifically, Finlay said Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc” Antle — the wildlife park owner from South Carolina — was unfairly portrayed as a “bad guy.” Antle was said to have three wives and was shown wearing a wedding band but Finlay defended him by saying that they were his “girlfriends” and that Antle said “he would never get married again.”

“There’s a whole lot more that they didn’t even show,” he said. “They had five or six years [of footage] that I don’t know why they just released one season. It just doesn’t make sense.”

However, when it came to Maldonado-Passage, Finlay thought it was spot on.

“I’m not going to say good things or bad things — but that was Joe [Maldonado-Passage],” he said. “They made Joe look how he actually is and he was definitely a showman and trying to become famous. Now that he is behind bars, he can’t really do that.

“He made his bed so that’s all I can really say about it.”

Finlay said he hasn’t talked to Maldonado-Passage since 2018, explaining that their relationship “was never the greatest.” He also said he believes justice was served when Maldonado-Passage was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

After multiple court battles and harassment schemes, Maldonado-Passage was charged with paying a friend $3,000 to kill Baskin, but the hitman never went through with the plan.

He was arrested in Gulf Breeze, Florida, in 2018 and is now serving his sentence in Fort Worth Federal Prison for the murder-for-hire plot and wildlife violations.

Before the divorce and murder-for-hire conviction, all 64 million households that have seen the show — according to an April 21 Variety article — were able to witness the unforgettable polygamous wedding in episode two, “Cult of Personality.”

The docuseries showcased the romance, wedding bands and the three-way marriage ceremony between Maldonado-Passage, Finlay and Travis Maldonado.

However, many people might be shocked to know there weren’t any divorce papers to be signed because it wasn’t an official wedding to begin with.

“It was actually a publicity stunt that [Maldonado-Passage] was trying to do for the reality show that he was wanting to have,” Finlay said. “We just wore the rings to show we had a claim to each other but that is just something that a lot of people probably do.”

Finlay was also not too keen about how his tattooed body, teeth and shirtless appearance were interpreted.

“They portrayed everyone in a different way than they actually are,” Finlay said.”I am not the drugged-out hillbilly they portrayed and I was four or five years clean [from drug use] when I [filmed].”

Finlay said there were actually scenes filmed where he had his new teeth in.

“I had [my teeth] in the middle of taping,” Finlay said. “It was June of 2019 and they were not done filming until October or November 2019 — they knew that I had them.

“There were some interviews I did when they were in and they chose not to show them, so that tells you the type of drama they were looking for.”

Also, he said it was the producers’ idea to show off his 52 tattoos.

“That was something that they threw at me,” Finlay said. “They wanted me to show off the tattoos as kind of the ‘sex appeal type thing’ for the show.”

Now six years clean, Finlay talked a little about how he was able to overcome his eight-year methamphetamine addiction. He said when he started hallucinating and hearing noises that weren’t there, he had to make a drastic life change.

“You get to a point where you’re like, this isn’t me  — I need something better,” Finlay said. “You don’t necessarily hit rock bottom, but you know something needs to change.

“Now I live a positive life because of what I’ve seen and what I’ve done and the only thing I look forward to is the here and now.”

Given the millions of people who were invested in the “murder, mayhem and madness,” Finlay became a Netflix personality almost overnight.

He hopes to use his newfound fame to get his “real story” out as well as help people as much as he can through motivational speeches.

“I don’t really know what my future holds but I don’t think this ride is over,” Finlay said. “This is something I am going to be doing for a while because I want to be a motivational speaker and I want to help out the youth.

“People need someone to show them that the world cares about them and that’s something I care about — helping others.”