If there’s anything I truly dislike, it’s a story so slanted that it only presents one side of an issue. And in the days and weeks after the release of Netflix's documentary miniseries Tiger King, we’re learning that the tale as told was very weighted against Carole Baskin, of Big Cat Rescue. Baskin is now fighting back in her own series of videos.
If you haven't seen or heard of Tiger King, let me fill you in. It's the talk of the quarantine. Released shortly before the social distancing orders and norms were fully in effect, the series took off once we were all locked inside and turning to our screens. The series follows a guy self-named Joe Exotic, an eccentric, private zookeeper in Oklahoma. Staff, animals, and lovers people the series with Exotic, but the biggest topic of the show is his ongoing rivalry with Big Cat Rescue owner and operator, Carol Baskin. It was Baskin who was blamed for Exotic's 22-year jail term, and who Exotic contends murdered her husband and fed him to her big cats.
I first became aware of Tiger King from memes that swept social media, many focusing on the eccentricities of Joe Exotic, but just as many referencing Carole Baskin and alluding to her killing her first husband. These were amusing at first, but were a lot less funny after actually watching the train wreck of a show, and significantly less so after taking time to do some background reading on the beyond complicated lives of the show’s cast of characters.
Tiger King paints Carole Baskin as a villain. She’s an unsympathetic, almost ditsy character in the show, and you end up feeling like she was just a catty gold digger. Despite the show covering Joe Exotic’s eventual trial and sentencing to prison for a murder for hire plot against Baskin, Exotic’s travails and plucky adventures are shown in a way to make him seem like the relatable underdog people want to root for, and not a meth-addled, abusive animal breeder. Carole Baskin with her slick organization, money, and relentless pursuit of justice feels cold harsh, and hard to care for.
It’s become a popular activity to poll friends and neighbors on whether or not they think Baskin killed her husband. This neighborhood did it with a sidewalk chalk poll. Though sidewalk chalks is harmless, Baskin posted a video on her Facebook page of people calling in with violent rape and death threats, emails threatening her and her family, and just rage from people who want Joe Exotic released from jail and blame Baskin for his imprisonment.
I’m not sure if these people watched the same Tiger King I did, but the scenes in the show where Exotic talks regularly of killing Baskin were disturbing. Also off-putting were all of the images of the internet show Exotic produced where they had a blow-up doll as a stand-in for Baskin, and discussed violence, including sexualized violence, against her.
Baskin has released a series of videos detailing her side of the story, without the filter of Netflix or Joe Exotic.
The first of these targeted videos discusses the living conditions of the big cats at her sanctuary, their cages, the sizes of enclosures, and more. Her introduction to this video explains her goal as, “What are Big Cat Rescue's cages really like? Note: We envision a world where NO big cats are bred for life in cages, but until then we make it as nice as possible for them. It's illegal to set them free if they weren't born in the wild.” She notes that when big cats are caged together they can fight, and that in the series many of the cats featured have extensive scarring from repeated fighting.
She details the story of the will of her first husband, which had the uncommon clause that allowed Carole to operate after disappearance of Lewis. Carole’s explanation of this video is, “Why was the word "disappearance" in the durable family power of attorney?” She notes that the producers of the Netflix series altered the written document for effect, changing the prominence of the phrase, and tells watchers how to obtain a copy themselves.
Baskin talks about her late husband's money and his former wife and children. She discusses where the life insurance money went, what happened to the properties from the real estate business, and the lawyers’ fees. In this video she details their early dating life, where she mentions that initially, she didn’t know him under his real name, according to Baskin.
Baskin goes through a very emotional topic from the series: Joe’s mother. In the series, it looks like Exotic's mom loses everything because Baskin goes after her in a lawsuit. Baskin tells a very different story about this in this clip.
The next video addresses Joe’s cats, and why Big Cat Rescue didn’t just take his cats.
Baskin delves into the two big parts of her husband’s disappearance: the meat grinder and the septic tanks. Baskin discusses where the meat grinder was when he vanished, and when the septic tanks were installed. She has a local Sheriff to corroborate.
Baskin defends her volunteers at Big Cat Rescue. Baskin doesn’t pay her volunteers. She does have some paid staff. Baskin discusses who is paid, who isn’t, and why.
Baskin hasn’t—and won’t—take a polygraph about the disappearance. She discusses the reasons and rationale in a video.
Big Cat Rescue is a sanctuary, not a zoo. Baskin discusses these differences.
Baskin talks about the snow leopard in the back of the van in the series, and the lack of follow up about where that cat ended up.
Baskin answers a host of frequently asked questions, or as she describes it: “Lightning round of most asked questions.
1. ‘Why don't you pet them? They obviously want to be pet since they rub up against the wall of the cage. That's just cruel not to give them affection.’
2. ‘You should breed in captivity. That is the only way to keep big cats from going extinct in the wild.’
3. ‘Why don't you spend your money on cats in the wild instead of taking them from a cage at one place and put them in another cage at your place?’
4. ‘I have always wanted to pet a cub. I don't see why that is so wrong.’
5. ‘If you close everyone else down, what will happen to your facility when there are no more cats to bring in?’ ‘Are you trying to close everyone else down so you are the only one in business with big cats?’”
All of the videos are also available on YouTube.
If you’ve binged Tiger King, it’s worth watching Carole’s content and evaluating how you feel about her side of the story. It’s also noting that all of the real drama in Tiger King centered around the people and their lives, with little focus or lasting attention on the living conditions or the ethics of big cats in cages.
Tiger King has done very little to advance any conversation on how we should treat animals or the suitability of private ownership of animals that can kill humans if not properly contained. Tiger King could have used the slick storytelling, the emotional moments, the drama, to pull us in and drive action for good and change. There is no real call to action in Tiger King.
Tiger King leaves people entertained, amused, and empty. What a perfect and disappointing example of how the media in 2020 treats serious subjects. Don’t all of us deserve better? Maybe Carole Baskin is the one really working for justice for big cats in captivity, and Joe Exotic is not the hero Tiger King makes him out to be.