Carole Baskin watched the Netflix documentary series Tiger King as many of us did: she binged it, devouring all seven episodes in one sitting as soon as it was released in March. “It was like watching a dumpster fire, you just couldn’t turn away from it,” says Baskin on a video call. “It was just mesmerising that there could be this many crazy people doing so many wretched things to animals.”
Of course, one of the “crazy people”, the show implied, was her. Baskin, a 59-year-old owner of the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Florida, she she had been told by the film-makers that Tiger King would be an exposé of the mistreatment of the animals by private owners in America. Instead, the series mainly focused on a long-running feud between Baskin and Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a mulleted, polygamous, country music-loving zoo owner from Oklahoma who calls himself “Joe Exotic”.
Maldonado-Passage, who ran for the US presidency in 2016, took his hatred of Baskin to outlandish extremes: in one video, he styled a blow-up doll as Baskin, put a dildo in its mouth and shot it in the head. He also accused Baskin of having killed her ex-husband, Don Lewis, who disappeared in 1997. One theory was that she had ground up his body, bones and all, and fed him to their big cats.
“At the end of it,” she says, “I just sat there with my [current] husband, looking at each other, like: ‘What was that?’ Such a missed opportunity. Because there was so much they could have shown people about the egregious abuse that these animals suffer. Instead, they just glamorised this yahoo in Oklahoma, and tried to create a feud. I’ve never even spoken to Joe Exotic. I’ve seen him in person I think four times.”
Those meetings were mainly in court: in 2019, Maldonado-Passage was convicted of trying to engage a hitman to kill Baskin, among other charges, and is currently serving a 22-year prison sentence.
Tiger King was the television sensation of early lockdown: 64 million households globally watched it in the first month of its release. “My phone started ringing, and it rang every two minutes for three months straight,” says Baskin. “Every time I answered the phone, it was somebody screaming threats and saying they wanted to kill me, they wanted to kill my family, they wanted to kill the cats. Our lives were just a living hell for the first three months.”
Everyone wanted to know: had Baskin killed Don Lewis? “Well, I’ve never been a suspect,” she replies, patiently. “I’ve never even been a person of interest, according to the sheriff’s department. It’s only been the animal abusers and those who were given a megaphone and Tiger King who had said otherwise. But I’m hoping that all of the new attention on this will actually give us some clues that we didn’t get then.”
One might imagine that Baskin had endured a nightmare 2020, but that would underestimate her resilience. She had an itinerant childhood, moving 14 times before she was 13. Aged 14, she was raped by three men at knifepoint after a girl she knew from church sold her virginity for drugs. “My daughter said, ‘If your life had a theme song it would be Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down,’” says Baskin. “It has not been easy, but I wouldn’t change anything, even the horrible tragedies.”
After Tiger King – and with Big Cat Rescue having lost more than $1m in income because of Covid-19 – Baskin accepted an invitation to appear on Dancing With the Stars, the US version of Strictly Come Dancing. She wasn’t a natural mover, going out in week three, but with her cat-themed songs (Eye of the Tiger, What’s New Pussycat?) and striking animal-print costumes, she proved she didn’t take herself too seriously. “It showed people that I am willing to take on anything, regardless of how ill-equipped I may be for it,” says Baskin. “And that I’ll do it with grace and good humour.”
In a surprise turn, Baskin could be set to become a pop-culture icon. Kim Kardashian West dressed as her for Halloween. Meanwhile, Baskin’s signature look of tiger stripes and leopard spots, along with a Polynesian flower headpiece, has also seen her heralded as an unlikely style pioneer, echoing the spring/summer 2020 collections of Balenciaga and Dolce and Gabbana. In October, Baskin casually announced that she has long considered herself bisexual. “Now everybody thinks that my husband and I are having threesomes and it’s like, nooo!” she says. “We’ve been in a relationship for 18 years and the fact I could go either way doesn’t have anything to do with my loyalty to him.”
The main reason for Baskin’s current optimism, though, is that Tiger King – whatever its dubious intentions – has exploded the big-cat debate in the US. Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who appeared on the show with his harem, has recently been indicted for wildlife trafficking, which he denies. Tim Stark and Jeff Lowe, two of the other memorable characters, have both lost their licences to own big cats. A federal bill to outlaw cub handling and phase out private ownership of big cats could be passed before the year’s end.
“That is the silver lining to Tiger King: people are finally talking about the real issues,” says Baskin. “If they had done a documentary that showed all of the suffering and abuse of these big cats, I don’t know if people would have watched it, shared it the way they did. But at least this opened the door and once I got my foot in that door it’s like: ‘And now you’re going to hear about the cats!’”