Nearly Everyone on Tiger King Is Terrible, but Why Is Carole Baskin Considered the “Worst”?
Netflix’s Tiger King is … a lot. I gave in to the social media hype to watched it and was really unprepared for the animal abuse, the emotional and sexual manipulation, the cults, and just the absolute mess of it all. That being said, it has been interesting seeing pockets of the internet defend/support Joe Exotic and loathe his antagonist, Carole Baskin.
In the documentary series, Carole Baskin, who runs the animal shelter Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit animal sanctuary based near Tampa, Florida, is the central antagonist to Joe Exotic. Carole is working to end the ownership of Big Cats in the United States, which would end private zoos like Joe’s—hence the feud.
Some of the ways that Joe Exotic has perpetuated that feud are threats against her life, allegations on social media about her being responsible for the murder of her second husband, and just attempting to use whatever clout Baskin has in his own favor.
So, let’s talk about the theory that Carole killed her second husband, Don Lewis. In 1997, Lewis disappeared during a supposed trip to Costa Rica, leaving behind $5 million in assets and leading to conflicts between Baskin and Lewis’ children—especially since Baskin inherited the bulk of the estate. The family, Joe, and the documentary all seem to feel like Baskin is responsible for killing Lewis and feeding him to the tigers.
Now, we simply do not know for certain if Carole did this, but the documentary does seem to feel it’s highly possible, and let’s be honest: For a documentary like this, having a narrative like that sells well. Chad Chronister, the sheriff of Hillsborough County, Florida told The New York Times, “We don’t have any type of evidence, not one piece, that suggests that he was killed.”
Is it possible? Anything is possible, and yeah, Carole seems very weird and is framed in a way where that seems possible. However, there is no evidence to show that except for armchair speculation about the wording of his will.
As Sophie Gilbert puts it in The Atlantic, “The show’s treatment of Baskin is where it indulges in its most egregious displays of false equivalence, as it tries to elevate her eccentricities to stand alongside those of Exotic and Antle.”
Joe Exotic plies young men with meth and other drugs. He underpays his employees and puts them in horrific conditions. Just look at his behavior after the death of his husband, talking about testicles during a eulogy, where he lip-syncs a song while the late man’s mother sobs. We see him more concerned with losing money than the fact that one of his employees got mauled by a tiger.
The creators admit that they cut Joe’s racism out of the series, but had the time to frame Carole as a cold-blooded, feeding-a-man-to-animals-type murderer.
“Joe is a racist, I would say categorically,” the show’s creator, Rebecca Chaiklin, explained to The Hollywood Reporter. “He said things when we were filming that were very unsettling.”
She continued, “They didn’t have a context in the story, but he has a lot to learn. I think most of it was ignorance and not having a lot of exposure, and I think he even evolved over the course of the time that we filmed.”
Joe was cruel to his animals and his employees, but Carole not knowing the names of all her volunteers—wow, what a bitch, am I right?
But let’s not forget Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who, one former employee alleges, coerces overworked and underpaid teenage girls to sleep with him and also get plastic surgery. The rumor that Antle kills his tigers after they get too old is more believable than Carole being a murderer because there is a clear financial issue there, and, oh, he owns his own crematorium.
Jeff Lowe, one of Joe’s business partners with a checkered past, looks like the human version of a yeast infection and has a violent criminal history that includes that he “beat up and strangled” his first wife, Kathy.
Carole Baskin is weird, slightly unsettling, and a bit of a hypocrite in some ways, but that doesn’t make her a murderer. And with so much actual evidence of true cartoon villains in this documentary, the fact that the “crazy cat lady” who uses her money to financially destroy businesses that are morally corrupt is still somehow the “worst” to many people is telling.
Watching the scene where Joe Exotic’s zoo takes a moments-old newborn tiger from its mother, as she is struggling to give birth, and instantly commodifies it—that broke my heart. That is not saving animals, and even Joe himself comes to see that in the end. Carole may be making money off of her animal sanctuary, but she’s not breeding them, and it looks like all her money goes back into the zoo and legal bills. She’s not putting snow leopards in caged trucks in the Florida heat.
Just because the tigers end up being overlooked in this whole discussion, here a few things to keep in mind about captive tigers (via National Geographic) as these “zoos” talk about how they are helping these animals:
- “Most privately owned tigers in the U.S. are of mixed or unknown lineage and therefore are excluded from participating in captive-breeding efforts at accredited zoos and institutions that seek to preserve the subspecies.”
- “A true sanctuary does not breed or allow hands-on interactions with animals, and it maintains high standards of care and operation.”
- I was not really aware of what ‘club-petting’ was so this is a simple break down of why it is bad: “Cub-petting facilities often speed-breed their tigers so there’s a constant supply […] Interacting with humans is also stressful for cubs. They’re very young; they’re not with their mother; and they’re being passed around amid bright lights, noise, and milling people that, to their tiny selves, could be predators.”
- “In the wild, lion-tiger hybrids such as ligers and tigons don’t exist. In fact, the lions and tigers live in separate parts of the world. Cross-breeding species can cause genetic defects and health problems” and Doc Antle has several ligers that are shown in the doc.
(via The Atlantic, image: Netflix)
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