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Carole and Howard Baskin say ‘Tiger King’ makers betrayed their trust

In their first interview since the Netflix series aired, the Big Cat Rescue founders say the series skimmed over animal suffering to glamorize animal abusers.

TAMPA — Carole and Howard Baskin opened their Big Cat Rescue five years ago to filmmakers who they thought were working on a documentary to expose cruelty in the captive tiger trade.

The Baskins have worked for years to outlaw the pay-to-play industry, which takes cubs prematurely from their mothers to be passed around to paying customers. It leaves thousands of tigers languishing in captivity once they’re too big to cuddle.

The couple sat for interviews for the documentary, thinking the filmmakers were going to focus on their cause.

Anyone with a Netflix account knows that’s not what happened.

Tiger King has become a viral hit since debuting March 20. Some believe the series glamorizes the worst actors in the captive tiger trade as endearing eccentrics, while portraying Carole Baskin as a shady exploiter no better than the abusers she’s spent years trying to shut down.

“ I just feel so angry that people have totally missed the point,” she told the Tampa Bay Times in her first interview since the series aired. “And the point is these cubs are being abused and exploited and the public is enabling that.”

A 2009 photo of Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin, pictured with Flavio, a retired circus cat that lives at her Big Cat Rescue animal sanctuary in Tampa. [Times (2009)]

The series spent considerable airtime insinuating Baskin may be responsible for the 1997 disappearance of her ex-husband. She is not considered a suspect, said Hillsborough County sheriff’s spokesperson Merissa Lynn, noting that the investigation has not ruled anyone out. Baskin’s most prominent accuser is the man convicted of trying to have her killed.

In October, she was given a global award of excellence from the world’s foremost agency that accredits animal sanctuaries for her “visionary leadership and advocacy efforts to end the private possession and trade in exotic cats through legislation and education.”

These days, she said she fears leaving home because of the death threats that flooded in after the series aired.

Howard Baskin of Big Cat Rescue in a 2008 photo. [Times (2008)]

She has seen drones flying over her home. Baskin said a doorbell camera has captured as many as 30 people a day lingering at the sanctuary gates, which have been closed since March 16 because of the coronavirus outbreak. It closed four days before the series aired.

But what troubles the Baskins the most, they told the Times, is how Tiger King breezed over the suffering of the captive tiger trade

“There’s almost no way to describe the intensity of the feeling of betrayal,” Howard Baskin said.

• • •

The docuseries follows the antics of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a gay, polygamous, mullet-wearing, camera-obsessed Oklahoma zookeeper known as Joe Exotic. He was sentenced in January to 22 years in prison for wildlife crimes that included killing five tigers to make room at his zoo, as well as plotting to have Carole Baskin murdered.

The misery Maldonado-Passage inflicted on his animals, evidenced in a clip of a newborn cub being pulled from its visibly distressed mother as she was still in labor, was a side note to his stranger-than-fiction personality.

A #FreeJoeExotic hashtag has gone viral as a result. But animal welfare organizations have tried for years to raise the alarm that Maldonado-Passage was one of the country’s most egregious animal abusers. A 2011 undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States showed tigers, bears, primates and other animals living in barren cages with no stimulation; animals suffering prolonged deaths due to a lack of veterinary care; tigers punched, dragged and whipped during training; and children holding tigers that were too mature to handle safely.

A 2013 photo of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a gay, polygamous, mullet-wearing, camera-obsessed Oklahoma zookeeper known as Joe Exotic. He was sentenced in January to 22 years in prison for wildlife crimes that included killing five tigers to make room at his zoo, as well as plotting to have Carole Baskin murdered. He has also become the breakout star of the Netflix documentary Tiger King. [ SUE OGROCKI | AP ]

“Things are a lot worse than what was portrayed in the Netflix series,” said Debbie Leahy, senior strategist of captive wildlife at the Humane Society of the United States.

Tiger King producers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin could not be reached for comment. Netflix announced it would release an eighth episode on Sunday.

The Baskins said they trusted the filmmakers because of Goode’s work as founder of the Turtle Conservancy, an organization dedicated to protecting threatened turtles and tortoises and their habitats. A Tiger King producer also helped create The Cove, a 2009 documentary that exposed brutal dolphin hunting in Japan.

In response to criticism of Tiger King that Baskin posted on her website, Goode told the Los Angeles Times that “Carole talked about her personal life, her childhood, abuse from her first and second husband, the disappearance of her ex, Don Lewis. … She certainly wasn’t coerced.”

But Carole Baskin said they openly discussed the disappearance of her ex-husband on camera, and the antics of Joe Exotic, because producers told her the details would be used as background context — not as the main thrust of the series.

Yet an entire episode was devoted to the case of Don Lewis. In video tirades he posted over the years, Maldonado-Passage spread — without evidence — his theory that Baskin killed Lewis and fed his body to her tigers in 1997.

Warning: This audio contains disturbing language.

Jokes about the accusation have dominated social media memes and international headlines. It has also led strangers to call Baskin’s cell phone at all hours and leave profanity-laced threats.

She has denied any responsibility for Lewis’ disappearance, and she has not been charged with a crime. She said viewers are focused on the wrong thing:

“They saw those cubs being dragged away from their mother. Where are those memes? Where are those comments?”

• • •

A lifelong cat lover, Baskin spent four years in the 1990s breeding servals, ocelots and bobcats with Lewis. It is a history she regrets, from before she understood the consequences of overbreeding exotic animals in captivity.

So two decades ago she made it her mission to help solve the problem created by breeders by saving tigers, lions and other exotic cats from the circuses, basements, roadside zoos and other miserable situations.

Now Big Cat Rescue is one of the world’s most prominent animal sanctuaries. But Baskin’s past is still used against her by the roadside zookeepers she works to expose.

Related: Is cuddling tiger cubs conservation? Experts warn it leads to too many tigers languishing in cages

As a globally accredited sanctuary, her rescue does not breed, buy or sell animals and does not allow the public to interact with the cats.

Tiger King gave Maldonado-Passage a platform to falsely describe Big Cat Rescue’s enclosures as tiny and overgrown, Baskin said. In reality, her smallest enclosure is 1,200 square feet, the largest is 2.5 acres and all have elements like bushes, trees and water features to mimic the natural environment of her exotic animals.

Big Cat Rescue manager Scott Lope, left, advisory board chair Howard Baskin, center, and founder Carole Baskin, right, interact with an African lioness at the Tampa animal sanctuary in 2005. [Times (2005)]

Baskin cites another example of how the documentary depicts her work out of context: A video clip that shows her talking to the camera in front of a lion hunched in what appears to be a cramped enclosure. But she said the lion, Joseph, had just wandered from his 4,000-square-foot enclosure into the narrow feeding chute and was free to wander back out.

“(Big Cat Rescue) provides natural vegetation, pools, added enrichment,” Animal Defenders International said in a statement released in response to the Netflix series. “From Tiger King, you would not recognize this as the place where our ex-circus tiger from Peru, Hoover, stepped through the woods and into the lake and began to swim for the first time in his life; such scenes were not shown.”

Maldonado-Passage has ranted in videos over the years that the Baskins use the rescue to get rich. But Big Cat Rescue is a nonprofit. As CEO, Carole Baskin has a $65,000 annual salary and Howard Baskin takes a $73,000 salary as secretary treasurer, according to documents filed with the IRS. Last year it brought in $5.2 million through mostly grants and public tours that goes toward caring for about 60 exotic cats rescued from abusive situations. It maintains 67 acres and lobbies Congress to change the law to ban the private ownership of big cats.

The sanctuary also donates to other animal welfare charities and profits go into reserves to pay for food, medical care and maintenance of the animals during emergencies.

Related: 3 tigers rescued from a Guatemala circus step into Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue

Some of the most influential animal welfare organizations, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have defended Baskin’s sanctuary.

“We hold Big Cat Rescue and the Baskins in highest regard,” said Leahy, of the Humane Society. “Not many sanctuaries do rescue and advocacy and Big Cat Rescue does both and they do them very well.”

• • •

Carole Baskin’s advocacy made her the nemesis of roadside zookeepers like Maldonado-Passage and Doc Antle, who was also featured in the show as a prolific breeder of tigers in South Carolina, charging hundreds of dollars for sessions with the animals.

In the last episode, viewers heard how Maldonado-Passage in 2017 began providing information to PETA, including his accusation that Antle puts tiger cubs in gas chambers when they grow too large to be handled by customers. At the time, the Baskins were attempting to collect on two judgements against Maldonado-Passage for copyright infringement. He “saw PETA as a potential lifeline,” the organization’s Brittany Peet wrote in a column published in Harper’s Bazaar.

A mugshot of Joseph Maldonado-Passage from the Santa Rose County jail, left, that was used by Netflix for the documentary "Tiger King." [ Associated Press/Netflix ]

Carole Baskin has historically answered calls from law enforcement, veterinarians and motorists to rescue bobcats and panthers injured on roads. But now she has to distinguish between real emergencies and strangers trying to lure her out in the dark.

“I’ve had to turn my phone off,” she said. “I can’t tell the real ones from the fake ones because they’re always out of state numbers anyway.”

She used to ride her bike 30 minutes from home to the sanctuary every day. But that has become too risky.

Last week, she said there was a car waiting for her in a median with a man filming and screaming at her. Another day, she said a woman waiting on the side of a trail in a hammock jumped up when Baskin approached, yelling:

“That’s her, that’s her.”

• • •

The Baskins said they see a silver lining.

They hope the attention focused on the captive tiger community will push forward federal legislation they helped craft a decade ago with a coalition of animal welfare groups.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act aims to end the private ownership of big cats and ban public interaction with the animals at zoos. It has stalled in committees since 2012, but this year has 227 cosponsors in the U.S. House and 17 in the U.S. Senate.

Related: Dade City’s Wild Things closes amid legal fight. Its last 6 tigers are moved.

Kate Dylewsky, senior policy adviser for the Animal Welfare Institute, one of the groups that helped craft the bill, said that while she wishes the series focused more on the plight of the animals, she still hopes the attention will spur lasting change.

“Reputable sanctuaries, which do not breed the animals in their care, shoulder the burden of rescuing animals that are cast off from cub petting operations, pet ownership, and other exploitative situations,” Dylewsky said. “It is our hope that if the Big Cat Public Safety Act passes, there would be far fewer big cats in need of rescue.”

For the Baskins, passing that law would be a long time coming.

“I really hope what will come of this is that law enforcement will take this seriously,” Carole Baskin said. “We’ve all been screaming at the top of our lungs for 20 years that this abuse was happening, and no one was listening.

“Now the abuse is so apparent, I hope it will encourage them to take action on it and inspire Congress to do what they can to end cub petting and private possession of big cats."

Times staff writer Allison Graves contributed to this report.