The animal rights activist Carole Baskin is best known for the Cat Rescue animal sanctuary. Her rivalry with Joe Exotic and her second husband’s demise also brought new attention to her advocacy.
Who Is Carole Baskin?
By runing Big Cat Rescue, a respected animal sanctuary for large cats, Carole Baskin made a name for herself that also promoted more regulation of private ownership of these animals. However, Baskin was transformed into a public figure by the popular Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (2020).
The programme which Baskin believed to mismanage his animals, demonstrated the tension between the private zoo owner Baskin and Joe Exotic. The disappearance of Baskin’s second man in 1997, which remains an open case, also attracted Tiger King’s new attention.
Through her famous post-Tiger King, in September 2020, Baskin joined Dancing’s lineup with the Stars and she was the second participant eliminated, thanks to her cat-themed performances. Baskin was born as Carole Stairs on June 6, 1961, at the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
Carole Baskin’s Early Stage of Animal Activism and Big Cat Rescue
In 1992, her second husband Don Lewis gave her a six-month-old bobcat, Baskin entered the world of big cats. A visit to a fur farm led the couple to gain over fifty extra bobcat kittens; many other animals followed them.
In the course of the day the two hundred large cats from Baskin and Lewis were looked after in Tampa, Florida at the 40 acre sanctuary, where the cats could interact with their bed-and-breakfast. On East Street, they named it Wildlife.
Although Baskin and Lewis rescued animals, they also sold large cats and bred them. However, when she objected to this practice with Baskin’s interest for animal rights, she found herself contrary to Lewis. Baskin kept the sanctuary under the control of the people after the disappearance of Lewis.
In 2004, her non-profit organization was renamed Big Cat Rescue, following Baskin’s marriage to Howard Baskin. Big Cat Rescue is today a 69-acre animal sanctuary with wide enclosure (1200 square feet the smallest). Although the coronavirus pandemic has restricted these visits, the Big Cat rescue has welcomed visitors and does not allow them to interact with cats there.
The company also promotes legislation for protecting large cats. Baskin would like to enforce the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would tackle unscrupulous breeders and eliminate private ownership of large cats and also prevent zoos from allowing the animals and touching them.
The Humans’ Representative of the Human Society told the Tampa Bay Times in April 2020, “We hold Big Cat and the Baskins in the highest regard. “Not many sanctuaries do rescue and advocacy and Big Cat Rescue does both, and they do them very well.”
What Transpired Between Baskin and Joe Exotic
In 2009, Baskin became aware that private zoo owner Joe Exotic (who has also used the names Joseph Schreibvogel and Joseph Maldonado-Passage) was bringing young tiger cubs to malls for petting visits, a practice that required the cubs to be prematurely separated from their mothers.
She and her followers started to contact these venues to push for the visits to stop. Baskin also objected to Exotic breeding and selling tigers, felt animals in his care were mistreated, and wanted to close his zoo.
Exotic fought back against Baskin, at times in underhanded ways. He started to use the name of Baskin’s organization to promote his zoo, which led to a trademark infringement suit.
He shared excerpts from Baskin’s stolen diary. He also created harassing videos, including a music video featuring a Baskin lookalike that suggested Baskin had killed her missing husband and fed his remains to her tigers.
Besides publicly attacking Baskin, in 2017 Exotic attempted to hire a hitman to kill his rival. They arrested him after federal authorities learned of the plan. In 2019, he received a 22-year sentence for this and other crimes.
Exotic was behind bars when a judge ruled in June 2020 that control of his private zoo had been improperly transferred to keep it from creditors. They gave Baskin control of Exotic’s zoo to satisfy the judgment in her trademark infringement case.
The docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, which became a hit when it was released during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, focused on the contentious relationship between Baskin and Exotic. The show also delved into the mystery of Baskin’s missing second husband (Baskin has consistently denied any involvement in his disappearance).
After Tiger King’s release, Baskin accused the directors of deceptive tactics. She declared in a public statement that she’d thought the series “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 backyards if they survive.””
She was disappointed because, in her view, the program had “the sole goal of being salacious and sensational to draw viewers.” The directors countered that Baskin had willingly spoken about her personal life.
Some viewers have pointed out that Tiger King didn’t favor Baskin in its editing and narrative choices. Accusations and insinuations about her involvement in her husband’s disappearance are covered in depth, while she was granted little opportunity to refute claims made about her. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Baskin stated that she’d received many death threats after Tiger King came out.
Husbands of Carole Baskin
Baskin left home at 15, got married two years later to Michael Murdock, and soon had a daughter. A letter Baskin had written about Murdock, in which she shared she “would have eventually killed” her husband to end their marriage, became public in 2020. Baskin explained she wrote those words because her husband was abusive.
In 1981, Baskin met Lewis following a fight with Murdock. This encounter led to an affair that lasted for several years. Baskin and Lewis got married in 1991, after divorcing their respective spouses.
Baskin met Howard Baskin at a local aquarium in 2002. The pair wed in 2004 and now work together at Big Cat Rescue.
Baskin’s second husband, Lewis, went missing on August 18, 1997, when he was 60 years old. Lewis’ van was soon discovered at a nearby private airport. Baskin’s husband had supposedly planned a trip to Costa Rica, but the investigation found no trace of Lewis there. Per Baskin, Lewis had been seeing other women and had ties to illegal activities in Costa Rica. Before vanishing, Lewis had applied for a restraining order against Baskin, though he’d continued to live at home after the order was denied in June 1997.
A 1998 People magazine feature about the disappearance considered the possibility that tigers from the animal rescue the couple ran had consumed Lewis’ body. “It’s a perfect scenario to dispose of someone,” one of Lewis’ daughters said in the article.
“”We were upset that the cops didn’t test the DNA on the meat grinder.” However, in 2020 the current sheriff stated that the meat grinder in question wasn’t on site at the wildlife rescue when Lewis went missing.
Lewis was declared legally dead five years after his disappearance, and Baskin became the principal beneficiary of her millionaire husband’s estate. In June 2020, the sheriff confirmed that experts had determined that Lewis’s will had been forged, but said no criminal case for the forgery was possible as the statute of limitations had passed.
Baskin was asked to take a polygraph in 2011, but refused on the advice of her lawyers. This left the investigation at a standstill. However, Tiger King brought new attention to the case. The sheriff issued a call for leads on Twitter and told TMZ, “There’s someone who was paid to do it.
There’s someone who helped do it. I’m hoping that person wants to come and get this off their chest and help law enforcement do the right thing.” The sheriff’s office said in April 2020 that Baskin was not considered a suspect in the case.
In September 2020, Anne McQueen, who was Lewis’ assistant, sued Baskin for defamation for suggesting she’d been involved with the disappearance. Also in September 2020, CBS’ 48 Hours had an interview with Trish Farr-Payne, the ex-wife of a handyman who’d worked for Lewis and Baskin.
Farr-Payne said that at the time of the disappearance of her then-husband came home with Lewis’ van and some guns. He allegedly told her, “Listen… I’m hangin’ onto these right now for Carole… Don’s gone. And — I don’t want you talkin’ about him.” Farr-Payne has said she first spoke to authorities about these events in 2000.
Baskin continues to proclaim her innocence. After Tiger King aired, she created a blog post that said in part, “Don was not easy to live with and like most couples, we had our moments. But I never threatened him, and I certainly had nothing to do with his disappearance.”
‘Dancing With the Stars’
Baskin agreed to become a contestant on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars to boost her advocacy for big cats, saying, “Because every single week, I hope to be getting the message in front of people: These cats don’t belong in cages, and we have to save them in the wild before they disappear completely.”
Family members of Baskin’s missing husband used her debut on Dancing With the Stars to release a commercial asking for information about the missing Lewis and offering a reward.
Baskin has signed on to do a new series about groups that violate animal rights. “This is a chance for us to use our new platform to battle the everyday evils facing big cats and so many other animals,” she said to Variety after the project was announced.