While Netflix’s wildly-watchable true crime docuseries Tiger King focuses on colorful former roadside zookeeper Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, it also tells the story of sanctuary owner Carole Baskin, who, alongside her husband Howard, owns and operates Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue. Baskin and Maldonado-Passage were locked in a years-long feud that culminated in a murder-for-hire scheme, and these days Maldonado-Passage is serving a decades-long prison sentence. Here's what you should know about Baskin's story, where she is now, and how she's refuting some of the claims in Tiger King.
Who is Carole Baskin?
Carole Baskin first landed in the news in the late 1990s, after the disappearance of her second husband, Tampa millionaire Don Lewis. By the time People Magazine interviewed her about the case in 1998, she was already a major figure in the big cat world. According to the magazine, Lewis met the 19-year-old Baskin in 1981, when he called to her from his car after spotting her walking down the street in the wake a fight with her first husband. Ten years later, the two married, with Lewis leaving his wife and four children to be with Baskin.
Their cat ownership began when Lewis bought Baskin a young bobcat in the early nineties. When the family arrived at a fur farm to buy more kittens, they learned that all the cats would be killed. “We couldn’t just pick out six and leave 50 to die,” Baskin told People in 1998. “So we bought every one.” That was the start of their sanctuary, which grew to more than 200 cats by the late nineties. To fund the business, they allowed guests to rent cabins on their property and spend the night with big cats as their roommates.
Together, they ran their sanctuary, then known as Wildlife on Easy Street, until Lewis, then 60-years-old, vanished on August 18, 1997. Though police mounted an investigation and Baskin hired a private detective, little evidence turned up other than Lewis’s van, which was found at a private airport.
He was an amateur pilot fond of making solo trips to Costa Rica, and a known eccentric—despite having made millions in trucking and real estate, he was known to scrounge in garbage bins for food. The documentary delves into the mysterious circumstances of Lewis, who was officially declared to be dead in 2002.
In a lengthy post on her blog, Baskin refuted many of the claims in the documentary about her husband's disappearance:
When the directors of the Netflix documentary Tiger King came to us five years ago they said they wanted to make the big cat version of Blackfish (the documentary that exposed abuse at SeaWorld) that would expose the misery caused by the rampant breeding of big cat cubs for cub petting exploitation and the awful life the cats lead in roadside zoos and back yards if they survive.
There are not words for how disappointing it is to see that the docuseries not only does not do any of that, but has had the sole goal of being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers. As part of that, it has a segment devoted to suggesting, with lies and innuendos from people who are not credible, that I had a role in the disappearance of my husband Don 21 years ago. The series presents this without any regard for the truth or in most cases even giving me an opportunity before publication to rebut the absurd claims. They did not care about truth. The unsavory lies are better for getting viewers.
She responds to specific points in Episode Three, even responding to theories that she used a meat grinder to feed her husband's body to the cats:
This is the most ludicrous of all the lies. As Gladys and the daughters did everything they could to make life difficult for me after Don disappeared, they spread this rumor that they thought I had ground Don up and fed him to the cats. And the media loved it. The meat grinder shown in the video was enormous. Our meat grinder was one of those little tabletop, hand crank things, like you’d have in your kitchen at home, like the one pictured here.
Meat had to first be cut into one inch cubes like you see here to go through it. The idea that a human body and skeleton could be put through it is idiotic. But the Netflix directors did not care. They just showed a bigger grinder.
The full post on her blog goes through the documentary piece by piece.
Where is Baskin now?
Over time, Wildlife on Easy Street evolved—she stopped breeding cats and allowing visitors to interact with them, and renamed the facility Big Cat Rescue. She married former banker Howard Baskin, and the two work with organizations like PETA in urging the end of private ownership of big cats. That’s how Baskin became embroiled in her feud with Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic. Maldonado-Passage bred big cats, including lion-tiger cross breeds that wouldn’t occur in nature, to fuel his cub petting business, condemning them to lives in small cages after they’re too big to interact with humans. Maldonado-Passage’s zoo became a target for animal rights activists including Baskins, who led mass emailing initiatives to urge malls that hosted his tiger petting events to cancel the bookings.
Their feud escalated from the realm of the absurd (Maldonado-Passage devoted an entire music video to accusing Baskin of murdering Lewis) to the truly dangerous. After first attempting to enlist one of his employees and then an undercover federal agent to kill Baskin, Maldonado-Passage was arrested. Last year, he was convicted of attempted murder for hire and animal cruelty, and in January was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Baskin and her husband still run Big Cat Rescue, and Vanity Fair caught up with her last week. “I think for Joe, [the feud] was probably very personal, because people said there wasn’t a day in his life that he wasn’t ranting and raving, and carrying on and calling out my name,” she told the magazine. “But for me, he was just one of about a dozen of these bad guys that I was exposing online.”
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