Tiger King star Dillon Passage is doing his best to adjust to a new “normal” without husband Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage by his side.
“It’s something that is a day to day thing,” Passage, 24, tells PEOPLE of how he’s coping without Joe Exotic, who is continuing to serve out his 22-year prison sentence behind bars. “It’s kind of my normal life now. It’s kind of weird to say, but I’ve kind of gotten used to our situation.”
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Despite the physical separation, Passage says he and Joe Exotic, 57, are focusing on the positive.
“The only thing that’s keeping us going is really just hoping for the best and these lawyers seem like they have a really good plan to kind of get things executed,” Passage explains.
“I’m not really able to speak to him very often,” Passage says. “He just doesn’t have a lot of phone privileges.”
“Usually, the only time I can talk to him is when his lawyers are on the phone. So last time I talked to him was probably a week and a half ago,” he says. “And I mean, he’s holding up.”
Dillon Passage and Joseph Maldonado-Passage
Still, Passage says it’s been challenging for Joe Exotic.
“Obviously, it’s kind of hard to be good while you’re in jail. But yeah, he’s just doing his best to stay positive. He’s kind of down. Obviously there’s a lot going on. I mean, he’s just really hoping for the best and is really putting all his faith in lawyers,” Passage tells PEOPLE.
As seen in Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, Joe Exotic — a former country musician, Oklahoma zookeeper, gun enthusiast and big-cat keeper — owned an exotic animal park and boasted of having the largest number of big cats in America. He was found guilty in 2019 for paying Allen Glover $3,000 to kill Carole Baskin, a big cat conservationist whom he considered his rival and for killing tigers to make room for more big cats at his exotic animal park. He was also found guilty on multiple charges of violating both the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records, and the Endangered Species Act. The disgraced zookeeper filed a lawsuit in March against various government agencies, as well as a former business partner, seeking $94 million in damages.
Currently, Joe Exotic is in a Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, medical center after he was exposed to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Fox 25 reported. (In May, Joe Exotic asked President Donald Trump to pardon him so he can get out of federal prison.)
As for how Joe Exotic is being treated in prison, Passage says: “He feels like he’s being punished because he’s in solitary confinement, which isn’t necessarily the case.”
RELATED: Tiger King’s Joe Exotic Says He ‘Misses and Loves’ Husband in Letter: ‘I’m Coming Home Somehow’
“I mean, I don’t know exactly what’s happening in there. But I know that being in a small concrete room is probably miserable,” says Passage. “I feel bad for him because Joe’s the type of person who needs constant attention and people around him and if he can’t have people around him, he’s got to be able to talk to them.”
Passage shares that when he is able to talk to Joe Exotic, he’s only “on the phone for maybe 10, 15 minutes.”
“He really just wants to tell me he loves me and wants to see what I’ve been up to,” he explains.
Dillon Passage and Joe Exotic
He’s also been writing his husband love letters.
“I actually just sent one of the lawyers a letter today so they could send it in legal mail. So he’ll get it faster than if it’s waiting in the system to go through,” says Passage, who is currently living in Pensacola, Florida.
Recently, the Tiger King star took a trip to Los Angeles — where he hung out with Too Hot to Handle’s Harry Jowsey and Bryce Hirschberg — and shares that the time in Southern California “was absolutely amazing.”
“My favorite part was going up to the Hollywood sign,” Passage says, explaining that he visited L.A. because his manager connected him with stars from the Netflix series Too Hot to Handle.
“It was my first time going to California and I just think … the Hollywood sign was like you got to go to it when you go to LA. So that was one of the first places I wanted to go. And I mean, it was pretty cool,” Passage says.
RELATED: Tiger King’s Dillon Passage Says Joe Exotic Wrote a Book in Jail About His Abusive Childhood
Passage previously opened up about his relationship with Joe Exotic, telling PEOPLE in April that they started out as friends.
“I never figured I’d marry Joe Exotic,” Passage said. “I had no idea who he was. I never Googled him or anything.”
But Joe Exotic was “very flirty” as he sang karaoke to “This Old Town” on their first date, while Passage said he was “kind of shy at first. After Joe sang, I loosened up a little bit and I was having a really good time.”
Passage had only recently arrived in Oklahoma after leaving Nacogdoches, Texas, where he was studying psychology and criminal justice at Stephen F. Austin State University.
The pair got engaged soon after and were married on Dec. 11, 2017, just two months after Joe Exotic’s previous husband, Travis Maldonado, accidentally shot himself and died.
“Joe had a long conversation with me whenever he proposed. He was like, ‘I need somebody who’s going to be here for me. You may not be in love with me right now, but you will be,’ ” Passage recalled. “I was in a bad place in my life and Joe really was helping me out and getting me healthy. And it was good to have somebody who I felt could take my loneliness away and bring me out of my depression and be there for me no matter what. And Joe made me feel like that.”
RELATED: Tiger King Star Joe Exotic’s Husband Parties on a Boat with Too Hot to Handle’s Bryce Hirschberg
“Joe took Travis’ death very, very hard,” Passage said. “Whenever he met me, he said that he felt like he had a reason to keep going. Everyone around the park was like, ‘You’re making him super happy. He needs you.’ ”
Passage admitted that while he’s “100 percent” in love with his partner now, the marriage grew into that emotion.
“It was like a companionship at first and then I just really saw his true colors and the kind person he was,” he said. “Animals have always been a big deal in my life. When I was little, I’d always bring home any animal I could find. And I could see Joe’s heart that he was very in love and committed to his animals.”