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Unless you were unduly interested in big-cat conservation, happened to be the owner-operator of a questionable roadside ‘zoo’, or perhaps just ran a tie-dye leopard-print blouse wholesaler and wondered who kept buying everything, it’s unlikely the name Carole Baskin meant a lot to you this time last year.
Well, that’s changed. Because if 2020 was a party, first to arrive was the coronavirus, second was the global shutdown, and then, just when things were getting going, in burst Netflix series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem And Madness. Experts will debate which of the three was most horrifying for years to come.
‘So many people who reach out to me say, “Thank you for getting us through Covid,” “You got us through this hard time with your cra-azy life,”’ Baskin says today. ‘They don’t realise what that would have been like for me…’
Watched by 64 million households in its first month, Tiger King, a seven-part docuseries, was utterly insane. Ostensibly it followed the misadventures of Joseph Maldonado-Passage (aka Joe Exotic), now 57, a mulleted, gun-slinging, polygamous former policeman, sometime politician, occasional country music performer and full-time zoo owner in Oklahoma.
Joe was the Tiger King. But while he was the protagonist, the focus soon shifted from him and the clear mistreatment of his cats to a feud he had with Baskin, the hippyish founder of Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Florida. Big Cat Rescue’s goal was, and is, to ‘end abuse of big cats in captivity’. Exotic was one of many renegade zoo owners Baskin had trained her sights on.
The pair had history, including a legal case in 2011 when Baskin sued Exotic for trademark infringement, resulting in him being ordered to pay her $1 million, but they’ve never met, or even spoken. Still, Exotic’s unbridled hatred for his arch nemesis clearly compelled producers, who indulged him at every turn.
In one of many online videos, Exotic dressed a blow-up doll as Baskin and shot it in the head. He also repeatedly accused her of having killed her disappeared ex-husband, Don Lewis, even suggesting she may have fed him to her cats. Eventually, he tried to hire a hitman to have Baskin murdered.
In 2019, he was convicted of this, along with several animal-abuse charges, and is currently serving a 22-year prison sentence. That is, unless he is successful in his appeal to be pardoned by Donald Trump before he leaves office. Exotic’s allies have said Trump is ‘the only one who can appreciate [Joe’s] showmanship’. Last year, the President said he would ‘look into’ the matter. At present, Exotic is still waiting for an answer.
Baskin, though, came out alive and, almost a year on from the show’s release, she’s thriving, if a little bruised. Yes, she’s trolled by hundreds of people daily. Yes, she’s sick of denying murdering her second husband. But she’s here, beaming out of my laptop screen.
At home with Carole
‘Hallooo,’ she calls out, disappointingly. As any Tiger King viewer knows, her catchphrase is, ‘Hey, all you cool cats and kittens!’ Evidently I am neither cool nor cat nor kitten.
The 59-year-old is at home in Florida, positioned in front of a white tiger-print shawl, dressed exactly as expected in a black top with a big cat on it. Hair down, chunky jewellery, sunglasses on head, look of gentle defiance on face. The only thing missing is her trademark floral headband. ‘Right here,’ she responds, lifting one up.
Even by the standard of Baskin’s barely believable life, 2020 was a wild year. Tiger King and its attendant fame was one thing, but she is also still running Big Cat Rescue, home to 53 cats, mid-pandemic. (On cue, her walkie-talkie interrupts us; she switches it off and says her 40-year-old daughter, Jamie, who works with her, can deal with it.)
Last month, a volunteer was bitten by a tiger, and she remains in hospital. ‘She’s doing well, her spirits are high… It just underscores how dangerous these animals are,’ says Baskin. ‘It takes a fraction of a second of you not thinking about something and you could be killed.’
Public tours of the sanctuary were cancelled throughout 2020, meaning she lost $1 million in expected revenue – a figure she attempted to match by, among other things, appearing on US TV series Dancing with the Stars and joining the app Cameo, on which celebrities record videos for paying fans. So far she has sent more than 2,700, making over $400,000. (A message from Baskin costs $299, not all of which she receives, or a 10-minute Zoom call is $999.) She’s loved it, other than the time a prankster asked her to send her regards to Rolf Harris and his best friend, Jimmy Savile.
‘It’s been a weird dichotomy between walking around the sanctuary and it being just so quiet, and my personal life,’ she says. ‘After Tiger King, it was like being attacked for selfies by 40 or 50 people a day. [But] the only bad feedback was [from] people who could hide behind an email or phone – those people would scream obscenities about how they wanted to kill me and kill my family… and kill the cats. I’m like, “Why do you want to kill the cats?”’
If Baskin sounds curiously relaxed about receiving dozens of death threats a day, she is. Though Joe Exotic is in jail (Baskin laughs when I ask about the prospect of his pardoning), that doesn’t mean she feels safe.
‘If I had been in danger prior to Joe being sent to jail, I think I have been in more danger since,’ she says, calmly. ‘As dangerous as he was, he’s the least dangerous of those guys.’
When she attends some events, she hires a bodyguard. ‘But around town I don’t… I do carry a gun, but my belief is [I] would probably never see it coming. I don’t think I’d be able to get to a gun in time.’
Just yesterday somebody flew a drone over her property, so she checked it wasn’t loaded with a grenade. ‘Because that was one thing Joe thought would be a great way to kill people, dropping a grenade from a helicopter. Every day is a matter of living like that.’
Netflix vs reality
Tiger King had been five years in the making. According to Baskin and her current, adoring husband, Howard, it had originally been sold to them as the big-cat version of Blackfish, the 2013 documentary that exposed the treatment of captive orcas at SeaWorld.
‘It was not that,’ she says, accurately. ‘We sat through the whole thing, then looked at each other and went, “What a missed opportunity…”’
Baskin felt let down by how she and her business were presented. Big Cat Rescue looked little different from the zoos it is designed to save animals from. In reality, it doesn’t ‘breed, sell, trade or allow any public contact with the cats.’ Baskin herself, meanwhile, came across as unhinged as Exotic, only in a more conniving way, like a (Cat) Lady Macbeth. In reality, I find her warm and quite funny.
Then there was the subplot that focused on rumours she murdered Lewis. ‘The way [Howard] describes it is, if you were to put on a trial and the prosecution put forward their whole case, and then never allowed the defence to produce any evidence, of course everybody would think that person was guilty… They’d have me doing these slow-motion, evil looks into the camera to make me look like a really hateful, vengeful person, and it’s just not who I am.’
A number of critics saw Baskin’s portrayal as deeply misogynistic, not least in the persistent suggestion that she relied on her husband(s) to accrue wealth.
‘You know, I didn’t even know what the word “misogyny” meant when I read that. I was like, “I gotta look that up!”’ she says. ‘The people [who] said, “Well, you can’t trust her, she killed her husband!” were always animal abusers. I’ve had that thrown at me all these years, but I didn’t realise people believed it.’
Baskin laughs a lot, but never more hysterically than when confronting the most painful moments in her life. She remains po-faced, for instance, when I marvel at how Kim Kardashian dressed as her for Hallowe’en, or when I point out that she has become a fashion icon, apparently inspiring the resurgence of leopard print on the high street. (‘Well, I didn’t think it was iconic.’)
She practically guffaws, however, when looking back on her experiences of domestic violence, infidelity, or a serious car accident. The worse the trauma, the bigger the lols, which means nothing is funnier than the rumours that she murdered Lewis in 1997 – which she flat-out denies.
What really happened to Don?
Theirs was a volatile marriage. They’d met in 1981, when the 19-year-old Baskin was walking barefoot along the side of the road in Tampa having thrown a potato at her allegedly abusive first husband, Michael Murdock. Lewis, cruising by, convinced her to get in the car by offering her a gun to point at him in case he did anything untoward.
Lewis was, she says, an unpredictable but charismatic man. He was also married, so Baskin – who’d had Jamie, then a baby, with Murdock – became his latest extramarital affair. They were together for the next decade, on and off, and went into business together buying and selling houses, before marrying in 1991 and launching Big Cat Rescue the following year. Not that it made him faithful. At all. He sounds like a sex addict.
‘Well he was, but I had such a strong libido that I thought I was all he needed. It still blows my mind, because we’d be having sex two or three times a day, and he still had girlfriends on the side?’ she laughs.
It’s been written that he’d fly to Costa Rica most months, where he had shady interests and more girlfriends, timed in with the week of Baskin’s menstrual cycle.
‘That was true. He’d tell me it was because I was grouchy and he wanted me to have peace around the house, but he was out having all these affairs. That was the nature of our relationship. I was free to have affairs of my own, but after we got married, I thought we were being faithful. I certainly was…’
By 1997, things had frayed. According to Baskin, Lewis became increasingly erratic, wasting most of a million dollars she lent him to invest, and was losing his faculties.
‘A volunteer came up to me one day and said, “It’s amazing you’re able to run this sanctuary and deal with a husband who has Alzheimer’s…” I bought a load of books [about the disease], I showed Don. He had started getting stuck in dumpsters, defecating behind buildings, really crazy stuff. I was trying to get him medical help, but every time I did, people were in the way. I believe they were taking advantage of him and didn’t want him to get help.’
At dawn on 18 August 1997, Lewis left home and vanished. He owned several planes and, though his licence was suspended at the time, often flew. Two days later, his van was found at a small airport 40 miles away. But there was no evidence in the van or at the airport, no witnesses who had seen a plane take off, no sign of foul play at the sanctuary, his credit cards hadn’t been used, and although two of his ocelots had recently been shipped to Costa Rica, there was no sign of him there, either. Details of the investigation were never released but US media has reported that none of Lewis’s planes were missing.
The wildest conspiracy theories
The case became a national story, starting a theory mill that hasn’t stopped churning since. Was Lewis’s van placed there by somebody else? Had he flown to Costa Rica and been murdered? Had he flown to Cuba, but cunningly sent the ocelots to Costa Rica to distract the authorities? Or… had Baskin killed him and hidden the body in a septic tank? Or ground him up and fed him to the tigers?
Most of these conspiracies were disinterred and re-aired on Tiger King. Baskin was able to wearily brush off those spouted by zoo owners – she has never even been a suspect – but the accusations from Lewis’s ex-wife, Gladys, and daughters were harder to take. And the producers, for instance, put forward the idea that she refuses to take a lie-detector test.
‘I offered! The only people I cared about knowing the truth were Don’s daughters. I was heading down there [to take the test] but my criminal attorney was like, “Absolutely not” – so I’ve not taken one since, because I don’t know where he is. I could pass the lie detector and be seen as a stone-cold killer with no emotions, or I could fail because I have emotions, and now I’m a stone-cold killer. There’s no way to win,’ she says.
She hadn’t spoken to Lewis’s family in person since 2001. She received his death certificate the following year. He was, she says, ‘my best friend from the time I was 19 years old.’ Only then could she have a moment’s grief.
‘I just looked out of the window, and by the time I came back, hours had passed. I spent the next two days bawling my eyes out. I haven’t had a real episode of emotions since then,’ she says. ‘That’s probably the closest I’ll get, unless we find some evidence of remains.
‘Every time there’s a hurricane I think something will wash out of the Gulf that will prove the thing he was most likely doing at the time was the thing that would end up killing him.’ She means a plane crash.
But what if he didn’t die, I wonder? What if a taxi pulls up at your home tomorrow, and Lewis gets out, looking sheepish? What would you say?
‘I’d want to know where he’s been!’ she says, with that laugh. ‘And, you know, I really believe he was suffering mentally, so if he’s alive somewhere, he probably has absolutely no idea who he is. But if that were the case, I would take care of him for the rest of his life. I am happily married, but I always loved Don.’
And Howard would be OK with that?
‘Oh, yeah! He’s an angel.’
When Carole met Howard
To understand why Carole Baskin married Howard, a sweet, adoring, elderly-seeming retired management consultant 11 years her senior, it’s worth considering the previous men in her life.
She was born on a US Air Force base in Texas. Her mother was a secretary; her father worked in intelligence (he is one of two private detectives she’d hire to look for Lewis), and later as a pilot.
‘My mother was the stable one, my father was this dreamer, the charismatic person…’ She stops. ‘God, no wonder I have these daddy issues.’ By eight, she’d become besotted by cats, and learned that unwanted kittens are euthanised. It was ‘a life-changing moment. I was like, “I am going to end that problem.”’ It’s still her goal, once she’s done with big cats.
The family moved 14 times before she was 13, and at 14 years old, Baskin was raped by three men at knifepoint after a friend from church sold her virginity for drugs. She ran away from home, worked underage doing bar jobs, briefly drank heavily (she now barely drinks at all), then, at 17, moved in with her boss at a department-store job – Murdock, whom she married and had Jamie with, and had run away from after a fight in 1981.
In October, Baskin came out as bisexual, explaining that she’d once had a ‘platonic wife’ in the 1980s. ‘I had sexual relationships with women before Mary, my platonic wife,’ she tells me.
A... platonic wife? ‘I was in an automobile accident when I woke up with amnesia in the hospital,’ she explains, with outstanding nonchalance. ‘[My assistant] found me in the hospital and was like, “Where’s your baby?” I didn’t know I had one.’
Baskin was in hospital for weeks, and the amnesia took years to be cured fully, thanks principally to her old diaries. As she scrambled to recover, she ‘couldn’t cook, clean, look after my daughter – I needed somebody to just be that “wife”.’ So she put an advertisement in the local newspaper for a non-sexual live-in partner (I’m not sure why she didn’t term it ‘nanny’, either) and found a nice woman called Mary. Where was Lewis? He’d decided that was a good time to try to patch things up with Gladys, of course.
So you can see why Baskin was looking for a little more stability in a third husband. In 2002, while seeing a hypnotherapist to try to control her weight, she discovered she ‘kept attracting this charismatic, daredevil, bad-boy type, and it never ended well. So I concluded I should choose somebody totally outside of what had appealed to me.’
That was our Howard, all right. They met at an event in an aquarium in 2002. There he was, in a three-piece suit and sweater vest, and all Baskin could think was, ‘Man, I could really loosen him up…’ But they got talking and ‘he was the cat’s pyjamas. I was so shocked at what I’ve been missing all these years.’ They married in 2004. She takes a breath. ‘Ugh, I love, love that guy.’
And he loves her. That much was clear on Tiger King, from his adoring stares and staunch defences. They’ve never had an argument, having once written a constitution of how to deal with one another under stress, and he likes the cats enough to dress up in an animal-print singlet for some now infamously weird wedding photos.
I’ve been wondering this for half an hour, so might as well ask: are you still having sex three times a day?
‘Actually,’ Baskin says cheerfully, ‘one of the things I found so endearing and bizarre about [Howard] when we first started to date was that I was accustomed to having a lot of sex, I still had a very strong libido.’ Howard, on the other hand, was a once-a-week man. ‘I was like, “Really, once a week? That’s what I can look forward to?!” So that’s what my life was like until menopause, then my libido went right out the window and I have zero sex drive.’
Which leaves plenty of time for Baskin to focus on her other great love: the cats. She says the Tiger King producers recently got in touch ‘to clear the air’, but Baskin told them to ‘lose her number’. If there is a season two, she wants no part.
Besides, she has her own upcoming reality series on animal cruelty with ITV America, as well as being the subject of a drama based on the hit podcast Joe Exotic. She’ll be played by Saturday Night Live star Kate McKinnon, who has previously impersonated Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and Theresa May. In any case, Baskin is ‘so close’ to succeeding in killing off the rest of the private big-cat industry in the US that she won’t be going anywhere for a while.
‘My daughter and husband would really like it if I did, [but] unfortunately I’m not done until I’ve driven the last nail into the coffin of that industry.’
And Joe Exotic? One day, he might get out. And maybe he’ll call Baskin, pleading for forgiveness. The Tiger King, humbled at last.
‘I don’t have any harsh feelings about him,’ she says. ‘If he had a true come-to Jesus moment, then I would be all forgiving. But I don’t think change is possible with him. All he’s saying is he was framed, and he doesn’t belong there, and he doesn’t take any responsibility for the things that he did to those animals.’
She shrugs, and I expect a last laugh. For once it doesn’t come.
The Hidden Tiger: Big Cat Rescue is available to download now. Half of the rental or purchase fees are donated to Big Cat Rescue