SIDNEY — The story of big cats, exotic animal parks and a murder-for-hire plot held the attention of millions in early March, and a Sidney High School grad was in the middle of it all.
“It was just supposed to be a documentary about Joe and his livelihood, lifestyle and owning the zoo, and it turned into this train wreck of a documentary,” John Reinke said. “And then COVID hit, and when the train wreck came out, it was No. 1 in the world. I’d have never thought it would be so big.”
Reinke’s life has been a string of events that have burned as bright and wild as the events that were showcased on the hit Netflix documentary “Tiger King,” which captured the attention of a worldwide audience when the coronavirus pandemic was first declared in March. Graduating from Sidney High School in 1984, Reinke would go on to become a professional bungee jumper and lose both his legs in a ziplining accident 10 years later.
His initial trip to the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, or G.W. Zoo for short, brought him to a grizzly bear named Ozzy who was hot, panting, in need of attention and, most of all, a water tank. Reinke approached Joseph Maldonado-Passage —better known as Joe Exotic — and asked him what he could do to help.
“He said, ‘My grizzly bear needs a water tank.’ And that’s what started it. I bought him a water tank, we brought it back, and he said, ‘That’s not gonna work.’ It was a galvanized big water tank that they put out in cow pastures and stuff. He said, ‘That’s not gonna work; he’ll just fold it up.’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s just try it.’ So we tried it, and it lasted about three days.
“He called me, and he said, ‘Your water tank is just a piece of metal now.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll fix it,’ and that just provoked me to build a bigger and better water tank. I built one out of steel. A steel company donated it, and I built it out of quarter-inch steel with huge angle irons to support it, and it was still there the day I left. It lasted a long time. And that’s what drew me in. I kept taking care of that grizzly bear,” Reinke said.
Beginning his employment at the G.W. Zoo in the mid-2000s, Reinke was in charge of managing the animals, staff and mechanics of the zoo. Maldonado-Passage handled the money and the books, and Reinke was mostly in charge of everything else.
“It was a lot of work. That zoo required 14- to 16-hour days out of me. A minimum of 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. It was pretty rough,” Reinke said. “I lived at the zoo most of the time. I would go home every now and then on a weekend or for a day, and then I went back. You didn’t want to leave the staff very long. Somebody had to be there all the time. Joe wasn’t too much of a babysitter. He did his own thing and did his studio stuff, so somebody had to be there to take care of the staff.”
According to Reinke, any accidents that happened at the zoo or animals getting loose happened whenever he was away from the zoo.
“You know, Saff (Saffery) lost their hand. I was at home. I had to come back and clean that mess up. Travis shot himself. I was at home. I had to clean that mess up. When I was there, I was always with them, on the chores, the tours. You could see me at any time,” Reinke said.
The drama and controversy between Maldonado-Passage and Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist and CEO of Big Cat Rescue based in Citrus Park, Florida, had begun when Reinke was first employed at the zoo. What started out as a mild back-and-forth feud slowly snowballed into a full-blown murder-for-hire conspiracy.
“The more studio equipment Joe got, the worse it got. But they made money off each other. They made donations like crazy trying to fight each other,” Reinke said. “He always had voiced his opinion that, ‘Somebody needs to kill her; somebody needs to kill her.’ But he would’ve never gone through and hired somebody until Jeff Lowe came along and him and Allen (Glover) pushed him into that and turned their words around to make it sound like he did it. It just would’ve never happened. But, you know, the feds knocked on the door, and I went through a five-hour interrogation. I said, ‘Holy crap, I’m in the middle of this.’ I didn’t do nothing wrong, so I come out all right.”
Part of the problem, in Reinke’s eyes, was Maldonado-Passage’s ego and the fuel to the fire added by Lowe and Glover, who encouraged him to try to get rid of Baskin.
“You couldn’t tell him — I can’t tell you how many times I told him to shut up, you gotta quit talking. I said, ‘You can’t say that; you can’t do that.’ It didn’t matter,” Reinke said. “I told him not to sign the zoo over to Jeff Lowe when he showed up, and he did it. I warned him, I said, ‘Don’t do it; you don’t know — you have no idea what’s gonna happen.’ And then he lost the zoo.”
Despite Maldonado-Passage losing the zoo and being sentenced to 22 years in prison for the murder-for-hire plot, in addition to several violations of wildlife laws, Reinke thinks he has served his time and that Maldonado-Passage will get out before his 22-year sentence is up.
“It’s not going to be a President Trump pardon, but he does get an appeal, and I think if the right judge hears it, he’ll get out. Especially since all of them’s ran their mouth now about how they set him up and everything else. I think he’ll get out. I don’t know that he knows how to be a human, though, because he can’t own animals anymore because that’s in the court ruling. So when he gets out, he’s just going to have to start a life somewhere, and I don’t know if he can do that,” Reinke said.
Life after “Tiger King” has been treating Reinke well, to say the least. He’s starting to get used to being recognized in public and approached for autographs and selfies. He spends his time working as a mechanic and races on weekends.
“I’ve always been a mechanic. Always, before the zoo, since I was a kid. It’s just something I enjoy doing. It’s kind of an out for me,” Reinke said. “I started racing many, many years ago, before the zoo time, and I’ve just never stopped racing on weekends. I think the racing thing really came to light during the show. I had the Eldora shirt on, and everybody noticed. Even Tony Stewart recognized it. Since then, me and him’s talked, he’s sent me shirts for the new Eldora and his race team, Tony Stewart Racing. Now other race teams are sending me shirts. I don’t ever have to buy a shirt again, or a hat for that matter. It’s crazy.”
As for what’s next for Reinke? He’s content with living his life and is going to hear back soon about whether he’ll be legally allowed to write and publish a book on his experiences behind-the-scenes at the G.W. Zoo.
“I’m a little leery about writing to start with — I’m not a writer, so somebody’s gotta write it for me. We’ll see,” Reinke said. “Meanwhile, I’m going to keep taking selfies and signing autographs. That’s all I can do.”
Reach Blythe Alspaugh at 937-538-4825.