Tiger King: Carole Baskin walks the walk. Joe Exotic ran the scam

Tiger King: Carole Baskin walks the walk. Joe Exotic ran the scam

by Nancy Collins | May 10, 2020

Tiger King: Carole Baskin walks the walk. Joe Exotic ran the scam

by Nancy Collins | May 10, 2020

“Please don’t feel sorry for me,” Carole Baskin emails from Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue where she is combating a Covid-19 outbreak among the 50-plus big cats. “The greatest gratification from [Tiger King’s] outlandish depiction of me and the Sanctuary, is already seeing attitudes change, people understanding wild animals should be living free.

“There’s a fascination with crazy people doing crazy things. So, much good, in terms of ending cub handling, phasing out private possession, could come from the docuseries reaching over 20 million people. No amount of my personal preaching to the choir could get out our message: cub handling is causing the extinction of Big Cats”.

I was the last person on Planet Earth to watch Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Hanging with a degenerate, narcissistic, self-promoting carny, riding to fame on the back of used and abused big cats, was hardly my cup of quarantine tea.

But the 34 million viewers who turned the Netflix Top Ten docuseries — and its flamboyant, camera-hogging, morally bankrupt star, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic — into a Zeitgeist phenom, clearly voted otherwise. The world loved Tiger Joe — bamboozled by the Disney-sanitized Joe Exotic presented by the ratings-over-facts filmmakers.

Instead, the notoriously cutthroat breeder, seller, exhibitor and exploiter of tigers, lions, pumas, and bears, was served up as a rough-hewn, but loveable, American outlier: independent, eccentric, straight-talking and, well, yes, sexually shady, but nobody’s perfect. Joe Exotic, flag-waving, animal-loving, peroxide protector of what makes America roll: private ownership, caged animals included.

The centerpiece of the series, indeed Exotic’s entire existence, is (still) his frenetically obsessive, decades-long vendetta against arch-nemesis, Carole Baskin, CEO/co-founder of Big Cat Rescue whom he accused of killing her second husband, Don Lewis, BCR co-founder, whose 1997 disappearance was never solved. Ridiculous.

But Karma is a bitch. And, last January, Joseph Maldonado-Passage was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for hiring a hitman to kill Carole Baskin, two counts of murder for hire along with 17 other crimes, eight violations of the Lacey Act, prohibiting trade in illegal wildlife, nine violations of the Endangered Species Act that included putting a bullet through the heads of five big cats found buried on his property. (Afterwards Exotic, according to Erik Cowie, head zookeeper at the Tiger King’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, said to him: “Damn, Eric, if only I’d known it was going to be that easy”).

“The docuseries, more docudrama, is not even close to what we heard,” says Kristina, a juror in Exotic’s two-week trial, the guilty verdict decided in only three and a half hours. “The jury wouldn’t have convicted him on what the average viewer saw. It’s easy to feel sorry for Joe, make him out to be a victim, but had the audience heard what we did, they’d understand. The worst part of the trial was the animal abuse. There, he should’ve gotten more time. The murder for hire got handed to us on a silver platter — documents, recordings of Joe hiring the hitman, videos of his hatred for Carole. Nothing I saw in ‘Tiger King’ would’ve changed anything. I’m confident we made the right choice. Twenty-two years is a fair sentence.”

Not according to Donald Trump, Jr., an unapologetic big game hunter, who finds Exotic’s sentence “excessive” — telling Dad that the rabid Trump supporter deserves a Presidential pardon. Unfathomably, the President says he’ll look into it. (Worthier candidates, lacking huge TV ratings, need not apply). For his part, the Oklahoma huckster, wallowing in his newfound fame behind bars, is, reportedly, suing The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asking for $94,000,000, claiming, hilariously, that their animal rights agenda deprived him of property and livelihood).

Joe Exotic destroys everyone — and animal — in his messy path. And thanks to Tiger King, Carole Baskin, whom I know and admire, got an undeservedly bad rap, complete with death threats and hate mail. Exotic loathes Baskin because she is what he is not, the real deal, a genuinely dedicated, exotic animal lover, advocate, and Big Cat Rescue CEO along with husband Howard Baskin. The nonprofit (accredited by The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries) boasts a respected track record, saving scores of abandoned, abused and orphaned lions, tigers, bobcats, leopards, cougars lynx and ocelots…refugees from circuses, pet farms, private ownership and roadside zoos, like Exotic’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma.

Moreover, she marches her message to Washington. Partnered with The Humane Society of the United States, Baskin lobbies for passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, prohibiting public contact with captive tigers, lions and other big cats as well as private ownership/possession by individuals, roadside zoos and other businesses.

In short, Carole Baskin has devoted her life to putting Joe Exotic and his ruthless ilk out of business

Exotic, meanwhile, earned his living breeding and selling tigers, pumas, and bears for profit, publicity, and personal gain. At his GW Park, visitors, for a price, could pet, play with, photograph cute, cuddly cubs (often crying with fatigue). Aged out of the baby-slave-labor market, animals were cast aside or euthanized …like the five big cats that he assassinated and buried on his Exotic Animal Park property.

In a 2011 Humane Society undercover investigation of Exotic’s animal park, a caretaker alleged that “hundreds of animals” — dangerous exotics like tigers, lions, bears, chimpanzees, and other primates, caged in barren conditions, were bred to provide infant animals for exploitation. Minutes-old newborn cubs were routinely pulled from their mothers, hand-raised to be handled by the public, “trained” by being punched in the face, dragged by leashes, and hit with sticks.

It was Carole Baskin who first filled me in on the mercilessly cruel underground of wild cat abusers like Exotic when I spent a day at BCR. Walking through the sanctuary, introducing individual animals, she recounted their sad, tortured, pre-rescue lives — tales to tear your heart out. (We both welled up). Baskin is Exotic’s personality polar opposite — calm, soft-spoken, emanating a serenity that permeates the sanctuary’s sixty-seven lush acres. Teams of volunteers, multi-colored T-shirts indicating their level of expertise, quietly go about the care and feeding of 400–500 lb. born-in-captivity wild animals. Big Cat only accepts animals confiscated by law enforcement or from private owners no longer able to handle them who must sign a contract, with severe financial penalties, pledging, never again, to own, nor be photographed with an exotic animal).

My candid, revealing conversation with Carole Baskin — the birthing of Big Cat Rescue with (deceased) husband, Don Lewis, printed below — appears in the beautifully-photographed, new book, Home at Last: Animal Sanctuaries in America, published by The Humane Society and written/produced by Paige Rense, Architectural Digest’s iconic, former editor. A lifelong animal rights donor/activist, Rense believes that the vital, emotionally draining, albeit rewarding, work of animal sanctuaries has, too long, gone under-reported — and appreciated. “Rescue animals — all my dogs and cats — saved my life,” she muses. “Like so many, I owe a lot of my personal happiness to animal sanctuaries.”

(Home At Last also features my visits with two other Florida rescues: Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary in Gainesville and The Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, both also started, owned and run by women. Home At Last, $40 inc. shipping) can be purchased at www.humanesociety.org/homeatlast (100 percent of the proceeds go to The Humane Society. Opinions expressed in this blog, solely my own, do not represent those of the organization).


“Protecting wild animals from being kept as pets, enhances every part of a person’s experience on this planet,” says Carole Baskin, CEO of Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue. “And yet the hardest part of what we do is convincing the public that the only place animals truly belong is their natural habitats … not
performing in Vegas, posing for pictures in a roadside zoo, living in somebody’s backyard in cages, even ours.” She stops tears welling. “Even though we saved their lives, I hate having the cats caged up. Huckster owners tell customers that taking pictures with a cat, breeding them, is conservation, their way back to the wild when it’s actually why they end up in trouble.”

“The vast majority of people would embrace the idea that animals should be protected in the wild, not end up in cages, if they really understood what keeping them there is doing,” Baskin says. “But getting that message in front of the public is completely frustrating. We have a million followers on Facebook, YouTube BigCatTV and yet it is still not enough to turn the tide.

Like most remarkable adventures, Big Cat Rescue was an accident meant to happen. In 1992, at an
animal auction, Baskin and first-husband Don ended up sitting next to a taxidermist. When the man bid on a bobcat — an animal species that she started rescuing as a teenager — she said, “When that cat gets big, it’s going to tear your face off.” ‘Oh, I’m hitting it over the head in the parking lot,’ he said, ‘and putting it up as a decoration in the den.’ I started crying so my husband started bidding, paying more than anyone else ever has for a bobcat.”

Back in Tampa, they ‘naively’ kept the animal in their home, even though “bobcats are horrible pets,” she explains, “looking for every opportunity to rip your hair out. The idiocy! What were we doing? But we didn’t know. Experienced breeders assured us that we were protecting the species. We bred, sold and traded cats that invariably were brought back, too hard to handle, a year later. After 18 months, it’s all over in terms of safety. Even now, if I went into a cage with one I hand-raised, while loving, he’d be looking for the first chance to fight me.”

A year later, the sanctuary stakes upped considerably. “My husband wanted another bobcat so he tracked down kittens in Minnesota,” albeit on a fur
farm, unbeknownst to the couple before they arrived onsite. “It was horrendous,” she recalls, “lynx, foxes and bobcats living in the filthiest conditions, starving, no medical care, in the corner a big pile of dead cats, since unsold kittens, slaughtered for their fur, were fed to other animals.”

“Well, I cried again, so Don said, ‘How much for every cat here?’ We came home with all 56 animals,” which they kept in their five-acre backyard while searching for property, finally deciding that their 40-acre rental would be just the ticket. “It had to be close to our house, so that we could go back and forth every day, especially then, since the kittens had to be bottle-fed every three or four hours, which involved everybody — employees, volunteers, and family.”

Another year later, when the farmer called again, selling more bobcat cubs, “we realized that buying the first batch hadn’t kept him from breeding more,” she says. “We wanted to make sure that taking animals wasn’t simply making it easier to breed again.”

So they cut a deal. The pair would pay, “top dollar for every cat, including adults, if the farmer contracted to never again breed cats for fur.” He agreed, and 28 more animals joined the burgeoning sanctuary, along with 22 more when a second fur farmer accepted the same terms (still the facility’s policy).

In 1994, their first big cat, a tiger, arrived. Baskin and her husband, who had never seen a big cat, were flying to Indiana to check out a leopard when she spotted a gigantic tiger encaged in essentially an 8-by-10 foot chain link dog kennel. Later, when they went to the site to investigate, the owner “invited us into his wretched, filthy, scary house,” where they found a pre-ordered five-month-old, dangerously skinny tiger cub with rotting teeth, rejected by the potential buyer because his fur wasn’t white.

The cub had been in the “carrier so long that he could barely use his back legs, dragging himself along on the floor, his belly fur eaten away from lying in his own urine. So we tore out the backseat of the plane and brought Shere Khan — now 750 pounds — home.” Shere Khan’s subsequent rehabilitation is indicative of Big Cat Rescue’s painstaking hands-on care — in this case starting with water therapy, “holding him in a tub so he could try and swim, building up his back legs,” Baskin explains. Treating his rotted back teeth, due to malnutrition, she entered his cage every day, putting “small hoses into his mouth, ears, everywhere to flush out infection with meds. He hated it but never lifted a paw — a gentle giant.”

In fact, it was just the beginning of an arduous learning curve, starting with money since direct care per cat alone runs $10,000 a year. The sanctuary’s current revenue is now $4 million per annum with $3.5 million in expenses. For the first eleven years, the facility was “almost entirely financed” through the real estate business that Baskin helped found when she was nineteen. In the first 21 years of the sanctuary’s existence, Baskin took no salary, starting to pay herself just a few years ago. She still operates the real estate business that has generated a continual line of revenue for the sanctuary.

The properties that she donated to the facility have pulled in “tens of thousands of dollars,” she confirms. Located on 67 lush acres in the Citrus Park area of North Tampa, Big Cat Rescue is one of the world’s largest accredited sanctuaries for exotic cats — tigers, lions, leopards, cougars, bobcats, lynx, servals, ocelots, caracals, and even a jaguar. It is currently home to 65, mostly elderly big cats, refugees from their painful pasts … abandoned, orphaned, abused, their skins often ending up on the fur racks in a major department store.

The sanctuary’s residents have suffered at the hands of individuals as well as businesses. No one knows an exact number due to lax government oversight, but in the United States alone, an estimated five thousand big cats are kept by private owners as pets, in ramshackle roadside zoos, or even as guards, as in the case of Nikita, rescued in a drug raid on a Tennessee crack house.

“If drug enforcement shows up at the door,” says Baskin, “they release the cat to distract police while they escape with money and drugs.” When the curator of a zoo who had temporarily taken in Nikita announced that the lion would be put down in thirty days unless taken, Baskin agreed, despite lacking space. “When I saw pictures of the huge swellings on her elbows, resulting from being kept on concrete, I had to say yes.”

In fact, it is a major concern when cats have to live on gravel-floor cages rather than grass, Baskin points out. “One roadside zoo operator kept twelve lions and tigers, hundreds of pounds underweight, in dilapidated cages with gravel floors, simply because they were easier to clean — spray hosing with bleach — even though the cats had nowhere to comfortably lay down. And there’s nothing for them to do, maybe one ball. It’s like you having to live in your bathroom for the rest of your life.”

Included among the roadside zoo cats was the mighty Joseph who at the first glimpse of a visitor, leaps on a platform, belting out impressively leonine roars. Before Ohio enacted laws forbidding private ownership and possession of animals, Joseph, along with a fellow lion and four tigers was owned by a woman in a “one-stop light town who charged guests $3000 a week to hang with the animals.” Lashed to stakes, the cats, chained to the ground, were unable to stand up or turn their heads, enabling customers to sit on their backs and comb their fur, ultimately being awarded a certificate as a licensed tiger or lion tamer. When injuries ensued, the cats were declawed or defanged (Joseph, happily, maintained his teeth), a harmful practice now prohibited under the federal Animal Welfare Act for facilities licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Joseph and his cage-mates were finally liberated, thanks to an exposé on ABC’s 20/20, showing adult cats being hit and sprayed in the face with vinegar to stop them. Upon airing, the show, combined with the owner’s ever-increasing injury rate prompted the USDA to revoke her license (lacking oversight, there is no guarantee that animals will be removed). Finally, the woman was evicted for failure to pay rent and the cats were left with the local dogcatcher who, contacting Big Cat Rescue, saved four.

Baskin would happily take in even more cats were it not for the cost, starting with the cage — 1800 to 2400 square feet complete with concrete pools and dens — costing $10,000 to build, hardly the biggest expense considering she must then, she laughs, “feed them for twenty years.” Their once-a-day feeding (500 hundred pounds of beef, supplemented with vitamins and minerals) takes twenty people over two hours to distribute.

Captive wild cats also require whole prey fed twice weekly for proper nourishment. Malnourishment is a common problem in captive big cats, and roadside zoos often rely on cheap diets of chicken and muscle meat, which leads to problems like metabolic bone disease, a significant problem which the USDA has taken steps to address through its regulations.

To prevent boredom, cats escape their cages several times a year to spend a two-week ‘“vacation” on the specially allotted, 2.5 acres replete with pond and toys. To keep costs in check in the early years, Baskin kept her staff to three: an operations manager, a person to run both gift shop and tours (per general sanctuary rules, Big Cat Rescue is not open to the public, except for guided educational tours drawing 30,000 visitors a year), and a videographer.

Most importantly, she learned to ask for money, despite knowing nothing about non-profits. She started staging events and fundraising initiatives, aided in her efforts by former Citigroup wealth manager, Howard Baskin, whom she married in 2003, the same year the sanctuary broke even for the first time. “Without Howard, we might still be struggling to meet the bills every month and I’d be divided between running the sanctuary and having to generate enough real estate profit to keep the cats fed.

“On our honeymoon, he and I created a 20-year plan for the sanctuary,” she continues, “that included ending the trade in big cats as pets, props, or for their parts. Once we were running at a profit it allowed us to devote most of our time to its implementation, stopping the abuse at its root.” Subsequently, the couple has put away “more than $500,000, making sure that the cats are never in peril again, like they were after 9/11 ended tourism and animal donations for several years.”

It was also during that period that the Big Cat Rescue team realized that it had to start thinking macro. Logging in 312 calls a year, from people seeking cat asylum, “it hit us,” says Baskin, “that we can’t rescue our way out of the problem. Laws had to change. We could save a hundred cats, but legislation could save thousands. Educating the public that they shouldn’t be pets would have to come later.”

The first federal bill they took on, making it illegal to sell big cats as pets across state lines, finally passed in 2003, after which the calls to rescue cats dropped by half — to 160 per year.

The real secret to Big Cat Rescue’s success, Baskin points out, is its volunteers, some 85 to 100 people, who, along with 14 paid staff members, keep the sanctuary rolling. Big Cat Rescue also benefits from an international internship program, which brings volunteers from abroad for three months, 12-hours-a-day stints. As a result, Baskin, whose priority is always safety, instituted an eighteen-month, volunteer training program. During their first six months, beginners, recognizable by their red shirts, work only with smaller cats, with whom they cannot be alone. In the next six months, now sporting yellow shirts, they care for cats no bigger than cougars, until, finally, graduating to a green shirt, master keepers are in charge of lions, tigers, leopards, “cats that can kill you from inside the cage,” says Baskin. Though Baskin bemoans “all the mistakes I made with Big Cat Rescue,” it is precisely those errors that perhaps most qualify her for the job. During the early stages, having mistakenly bred and kept cats herself, “I know that mentality,” she says adamantly, “what goes through the mind of someone who does it. What is terrible are those who know better and continue the practice. And people in our industry are not exempt. While saying cats don’t make good pets, they post pictures of themselves petting wild animals. People want to do what they do.”

While there’s “a high rate of burnout in our business,” Baskin expects to be involved “until I die. In any other industry, if you burn out, you leave for a while, come back. But you can’t with animals depending on you. You have to stay no matter what’s going on in your personal life.”

“We are seeing a change in the way people think about captive animals,” she muses. “I believe that this problem can be fixed in my lifetime.” In any case, “being harassed by truly evil animal abusers, speaking to groups, getting angry and determined on behalf of helpless, tortured animals has made me so much braver. On the playground, I was one of those kids who, if you looked in my direction, I’d burst into tears. But no more. Because of big cats, doing what needs to be done, I am now a far cry from that girl.”

For Carole and Howard Baskin’s concise summary of Netflix’s misrepresentation of Big Cat Rescue and themselves:

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