Jeff Johnson, a reptile dealer who appeared in an episode of Netflix's Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, died in September by suicide, according to law enforcement officials. He was 58 years old. The 2020 docuseries, which centered on an eccentric cast of characters involved with the exotic animal trade in the Southern U.S., became a cultural phenomenon when it aired, aided by the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the fact that virtually everyone in the country was home and looking for distractions around that time. It has spawned numerous spinoffs, fictionalized accounts, parodies, comic books, and (of course) lawsuits.
According to the Oklahoma City Police Department, Johnson died on September 8th, following an argument with his wife in their home's garage. Johnson was reportedly in front of his wife when he shot himself, and his children were also home. A report acquired by People magazine says that his wife called 911, and Johnson was alive when the ambulance arrived, but was pronounced dead upon arrival at a local hospital.
Johnson had no known history of mental illness or suicidal ideation.
The Tiger King saga centered on "Joe Exotic," an eccentric owner of a zoo with a focus on tigers and other big cats. He found himself butting heads with Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist and owner of Big Cat Rescue, a not-for-profit shelter for those same types of exotic animals. When their feud escalated to the point where Exotic infringed on Baskin's trademark and was slapped with a $1 million fine. Before he was able to pay her back, Exotic was found guilty of conspiring to have Baskin killed, and went to jail. She would later take possession of his zoo in lieu of the cash payment.
Baskin is currently trying to prevent Netflix from using footage of her in the planned second season of Tiger King, claiming that the release she and other interviewees signed, was for a single documentary rather than several. So far, that argument has not found support in the courts.
Exotic, who has had health problems in recent years, was rushed to the hospital last week.
The subjects of the Tiger King documentary have all handled their sudden celebrity differently, especially considering they had no way of knowing it was coming and were (for the most part, at least) not pursuing it. Our condolences go out to Johnson's family and friends at this difficult time.