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Who Is Carole Baskin? Meet 'Tiger King' Joe Exotic's Mortal Enemy

Photo: Netflix
Who Is Carole Baskin? Meet 'Tiger King' Joe Exotic's Mortal Enemy

In these days of social distancing, Netflix gave us all a true gift with their new series called Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness

Tiger King is the story of a roadside zoo owner who calls himself Joe Exotic who has made a career of owning a private zoo with dozens of wild animals, where guests can pay extra for a chance to pet a tiger cub. He sports multiple piercings, a platinum mullet and plenty of tattoos. He has also inspired the ire of animal right s activists who think his breeding and selling of cubs once they get too old to be cuddled by audience members is animal cruelty. 

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The series focuses on his rivalry with animal rights activist Carole Baskin, a woman who literally wears wreaths of flowers in her hair. Baskin, a one-time cat breeder herself, changed her mission to animal rescue and has spent years trying to shut down Joe Exotic's operation. He got so frustrated with her that he hired someone to kill her.

But Caolre Baskin may have some skeletons in her own closet. Her second husband disappeared under unexplained circumstances and some people think she — and her cats — were involved in his death. 

Who Is Carole Baskin and did she murder her husband?

Carole Baskin is the owner of wildlife rescue in Florida called Big Cat Rescue and in the docu-series, she portrays herself as the patron saint of captive cats. According to the organization's website, "Big Cat Rescue is one of the largest accredited sanctuaries in the world dedicated to abused and abandoned big cats. We are home to about 80+ lions, tigers, bobcats, cougars and other species most of whom have been abandoned, abused, orphaned, saved from being turned into fur coats, or retired from performing acts"

One of Baskin's goals is to completely end the breeding and sale of captive cats. She has devoted significant energy to passing laws to limit both breeding and trading wild cat sales in the US. 

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She started working with big cats after carrying her second husband.

Basin got married when she was just 17 years old to a man she claimed abused her. They had a daughter together and she couldn't find a way to leave him safely.

One night after a major fight with her first husband, she fled the house and was walking along the side of a road when she met a man who called himself Bob Martin. In a truly bizarre episode, he offered to give her a ride but when she declined, he said she could hold a gun on him in the car if that made her feel safer. She did and that night began a long affair, despite them both being married. She later learned that he had given her a fake name when they met and it was months into the affair when she found out that he was actually a wealthy businessman named Don Lewis. They eventually left their spouses and married one another. 

She says they got started in the big cat rescue world when they got a bobcat as a pet. It was a destructive animal and Baskin figured it needed a companion to keep it occupied. They answered an ad for someone selling a bobcat and realized the person was actually breeding the cats for fur. Baskin and Lewis bought out his entire stock right then to save their lives. 


A post shared by @carole.baskin.tigers on Mar 24, 2020 at 10:43am PDT

Baskin puts forth a very gentle image of herself. 

Basking began as a breeder herself.

Baskin didn't start out as just a cat rescuer. She and her second husband, Don Lewis were actually breeding big cats for sale themselves. In the Netflix series, audiences are treated to a snippet of a video she made in the 1980s about hand-raising the cubs so that they could be acclimated to humans in order to be sold as pets. She and Lewis had a thriving business of breeding and selling cats, as well as allowing people to visit their own roadside zoo. Lewis would have been content to continue on as they were but Baskin lost her taste for the business when she realized that the cats they sold weren't living lives of luxury. She learned that people we re-selling them at auction and they were being killed or mistreated. She decided she wanted to move to a rescue mission at that time. 

Don Lewis disappeared under mysterious circumstances. 

As Baskin began insisting that they change their mission with the cats, their marriage became increasingly strained. According to interviews in the series, Lewis confided to his assistant that Baskin had threatened his life and he had even applied for a restraining order. He was on the verge of asking Baskin for a divorce. In the midst of all this, he disappeared. 

Friends and family initially thought he had been planning to board a plane to Miami but he never got on the flight. They also looked into the possibility that he had taken a boat to Costa Rica, where he and Basin owned property but he never showed up there. No one ever saw him again.

His daughter has accused Baskin of killing Lewis and feeding his body to a tiger to cover up the murder. She alleges that a divorce would have left Baskin without Lewis's fortune, which was paying for the cats she so loved. 

Her rescue mission spawned a bitter feud with Joe Exotic. 

After the disappearance of Lewis, Baskin turned her focus to her new mission of ending cat breeding and sales in America. One of her targets was Joe Exotic, an Oklahoma zoo owner who specialized in breeding cubs for "cub petting" opportunities. He would tour with the animals as well as bring people to his own zoo and let them pay to hold the animals and be photographed with them. However, cubs can only be used in that way up to a certain point, when they grow too large and dangerous to handle. To keep his business afloat, he was breeding cats constantly, then selling or euthanizing the animals when he could no longer use them. 

Baskin mobilized volunteers to protest his events until he couldn't get bookings to bring his animals to malls and other venues. She also was responsible for tightening laws on the sale of exotic animals which made it harder for Joe Exotic to unload the cats he couldn't use at his zoo anymore. 

Joe Exotic tried to have Baskin killed.

Joe Exotic did not take kindly to Baskin's attempts to put him out of business. He retaliated by abusing her on his YouTube show, stealing her diary and publishing it, photographing her animal refuge from a helicopter, and generally talking smack about her at every opportunity. As time went on, he grew more and more incensed over her until he was actively seeking ways to have her killed. On two different occasions, he tried to hire people to murder her. In the second case, the person he was talking to was an undercover federal agent who had been deployed as part of a larger investigation of his animal selling operation. 

 In 2019, he was convicted of the murder-for-hire scheme as well as animal abuse charges. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison in early 2020. As of today, Baskin is still running her animal sanctuary. 

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. She is the creator of the blog FeminXer and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.