Is the Tiger King about to be uncaged? Joe Exotic, the jailed star of the hit Netflix show, is appealing to Donald Trump for a pardon. Here Carole Baskin – the woman he tried to have killed – tells why she’ll be carrying a gun… just in case
- The jailed Tiger King star Joe Exotic is appealing to President Trump for a pardon
- Compelling Netflix series became cultural phenomenon at the start of pandemic
- Joe Exotic, whose full name is Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, is serving 22 years in prison for animal abuse and murder-for-hire plot against Carole Baskin
- His nemesis Carole explains why she will carry a gun just in case he is pardoned
Until March last year, most of us had never heard of Carole Baskin. And then came the coronavirus pandemic, and the first lockdown and we all had to stay at home to ‘squash the sombrero’ of Covid cases, just as Netflix began streaming Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem And Madness.
The compelling true-crime documentary series, with a cast of bizarre real-life personalities and sinister plot twists became a cultural phenomenon that had viewers on both sides of the Atlantic in its thrall.
The hero or villain, depending on your point of view, was the undeniably engaging Joe Exotic — the gay, blond-mulleted, tattooed and pierced, many-times married, occasional meth-snorting owner of an exotic animal park in Oklahoma.
Carole, the heroine or villainess depending on your point of view, was his nemesis.
The self-styled conservationist and ‘big cat’ activist had been campaigning for years to stop the breeding of tigers and lions in captivity.
Joe Exotic, whose full name is Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, was arrested in 2018 and is serving 22 years in prison for animal abuse and murder-for-hire plot against Carole Baskin
She was Joe’s most prolific critic, constantly criticising him in print, on TV and social media about his practice of rearing cubs and charging people to have their photograph taken cuddling one at his zoo, in shopping malls or wherever else he took his animals.
Once they became too big to handle, the tigers and lions were left to languish in cages in the zoo, situated on an old ranch.
In 2013, Carole won a $1 million civil suit against Joe over a trademark infringement issue. It was then he decided on revenge and twice tried to hire hitmen to murder her.
She came across as the ultimate eccentric ‘cat-lady’ and interfering busybody, whom Joe accused of murdering her second husband after his mysterious disappearance.
Tiger King has been can’t-look-away-TV for the some 70 million households worldwide which have streamed the TV series to date, and the latest lockdown will no doubt attract more fans.
Joe Exotic, whose full name is Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, was arrested in 2018.
He is currently serving 22 years in prison for animal abuse and the murder-for-hire plot against Carole Baskin.
But, recently, it emerged that he’s seeking a pardon before President Trump leaves office in two weeks’ time.
Activist Carole Baskin (pictured) took on Joe Exotic and his for-profit breeding of big cats
His 257-page application included a personal plea from Joe. He believes that both he and Mr Trump are victims of federal investigators. ‘I see what they do to you and can’t believe it,’ he wrote.
‘Team Tiger’ — lawyers and investigators working to free Joe — reportedly head to Washington today (on a private jet named Exotic 1), and expect a pardon as early as this week.
‘President Trump is the only one we can approach in this manner,’ said lead supporter Eric Love, a Texas millionaire and private investigator who seems as eccentric as the man he is trying to free. ‘He is the only one who can appreciate [Joe’s] showmanship.’
So how does Carole, 59, feel about the latest development? Sitting in her office at Big Cat Rescue, her 64-acre animal sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, the woman I meet seems far removed from the flamboyant character we saw on TV.
Then she purrs her signature greeting: ‘Hey, all you cool cats and kittens.’ No matter how many times you hear it, it’s oddly mesmerising.
Carole’s ‘big cat’-influenced style was a feature of the Netflix show and today she’s wearing palazzo pants in a fetching tiger stripe.
Her penchant for floral headdresses persists and midway through our rollicking interview — in which she deals with those rumours about her alleged ‘murder’ of her second husband and confirms she’s bisexual and she once advertised for a ‘wife’ — she plonks one on her flowing blonde locks.
She’s keen to talk about Christmas and how she and her third husband Howard (Howie) celebrated with the sanctuary’s 54 residents — a menagerie of rescued and abandoned tigers, lions, jaguars and other exotic felines such as servals and bobcats.
Tiger King tells the story of how Carole Baskin (left), the owner of a big cat refuge, sought to shut down Maldonado-Passage’s for-profit breeding of big cats. Federal authorities said Maldonado-Passage paid Allen Glover (right) $3,000 as part of a plot to have Baskin killed
‘We bought a whole bunch of Christmas trees for the cats, because they love the scent of pine, and we gave them turkey and Cornish game hens on the big day.
‘The bigger cats love carrying around raw meat because it makes them feel like they’ve killed their own prey,’ she drawls.
But when I raise the subject of Joe Exotic and reports of his attempt to win a presidential pardon, Carole’s cheery smile vanishes.
‘I do think it’s poetic justice that he’s caged like the hundreds, if not thousands of animals, that he bred for life in cages,’ she sniffs.
‘I think the public was duped into seeing Joe as a loveable rogue, but anyone who reads the transcripts from his trial will see he shouldn’t be walking among the rest of us.
‘He shot five healthy tigers because they were an inconvenience to him, and I’m just as much in danger with him in jail. He can still fund a hit man from prison.’
She says the content of Tiger King took her by surprise. She and Howie thought they were working on a documentary to expose cruelty in the captive tiger trade, and she is angry the series concentrated on Joe’s warped lifestyle and accusations about her.
Netflix producers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin say Carole spoke freely to them about her personal life, her childhood, her alleged abuse by her first husband and the disappearance of her second, Don Lewis.
Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, walks the property near Tampa in Florida in 2017
‘With any project that goes on for five years, things evolve and change, and we followed it as any good storyteller does,’ said Chaiklin.
Certainly, Carole is not usually camera shy — Big Cat Rescue has millions of followers on Facebook and Twitter and, since 2006, its YouTube channel, which regularly features Carole, has had almost 600 million views.
But recently she was ‘pranked’ by YouTubers, one of whom pretended to be U.S. late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon.
Another tricked her into sending birthday wishes to shamed Australian TV star Rolf Harris, who served a jail term in the UK for indecent assaults on schoolgirls, and got her to mentioning ‘Rolf’s best friend’ Jimmy Savile.
These experiences have made her wary and this is a rare interview. But Carole is keen to correct the impression given by Tiger King that she and Joe operated similar facilities.
And indeed, that’s what Joe told the court at his trial. ‘My problem is that she’s a hypocrite,’ he said, describing Big Cat Rescue as no more than a roadside zoo.
‘The fundamental difference is that zoos buy animals, breed them, sell them, allow public contact with them and, sometimes, they take them off-site — like Joe did, taking tiger cubs to shopping malls — for public entertainment,’ Carole retorts.
‘Sanctuaries do not buy, sell or trade animals. They don’t allow public contact with them or breed them. They’re polar opposites in their philosophy; the only thing they have in common is that both have animals in cages.
‘Sanctuaries like ours have bigger, nicer enclosures, but the main goal for any sanctuary is to put itself out of business.
Carole is keen to correct the impression given that she and Joe operated similar facilities
‘We shouldn’t have to save animals from these horrific conditions. If the public knew what happens behind the scenes, they would never stand for it.’
Could the exotic animals she has rescued be released into the wild?
‘All of these cats were born in captivity and kept in cages, so it’s not legal to release them anywhere. They’d never survive,’ she insists.
Carole has never been to Africa or Asia to see big cats in the wild. Isn’t that a bit odd for a conservationist?
‘If I saw tigers living in the wild I would never be able to stand another day taking care of these captive cats that I can’t set free,’ she sighs.
‘I know they don’t belong in cages, and I know how bad this is for them and how much they must hate their lives, but we can only do our best.
‘Our enclosures are huge and our cats have beautiful living conditions but no one would know that from watching Tiger King.’
In her wildest imagination did she ever believe Joe Exotic — one of many breeders she targeted — would have tried to have her killed?
Joe Exotic is currently in prison serving a 22-year sentence after being found guilty of a murder-for-hire plot against his exotic animal rival Carole Baskin
‘He’d been trying for 15 years to get someone to kill me and he had his little internet show where he’d tell people I needed to be shot, killed, have my legs broken,’ she recalls. ‘But he couldn’t whip people into enough of a frenzy to make it happen.
‘Then, in 2015, I started getting phone calls from people who said Joe had tried to pay them to kill me. I contacted the police . . . but it wasn’t until 2017, when the FBI had an informant who managed to set up a call between an undercover FBI agent and Joe, [that] Joe said: “The last guy screwed it up, so I’ll pay you to kill her”.’
Carole seems remarkably sanguine about what sounds like the plot of a bad thriller. ‘I think Joe is wily and conniving and he’ll do anything for attention, but of all the abusers in the big cat industry, he’s the dumbest,’ she scoffs.
‘When people ask me if I’m relieved that he’s in jail, I say not really because there are still a lot of scary people who hate me and would also love to see me dead and I will still keep going after them.’
She says she’s had to hire bodyguards, and that she and Howie legally carry guns.
‘I’m on my guard all the time,’ she says. ‘It’s definitely misogynistic.’
In truth, though, there is little that fazes Carole. When I ask her about the allegations she murdered her second husband, property developer Don Lewis, and ground his body up, she raises her eyes to heaven.
‘There was a meat grinder but it was only big enough to grind up chicken patties and cat food, not a body. It was gone by 1994 or 1995 and Don disappeared in 1997,’ she counters.
‘I did not kill my husband,’ she insists. ‘The only thing that makes sense to me is that he bought an ultralight [a lightweight fixed-wing aircraft] from someone [his car was found at a local airstrip], met the pilot, bought the plane, took them back to wherever they were from and, as he was flying back, crashed in the Gulf of Mexico.
‘He didn’t have a licence, so he’d fly at under 200 ft so radar wouldn’t pick him up. And if you make a mistake at 200 ft, you can’t recover. I think he was flying across the water and something went wrong.
Joe Exotic’s 22-year-old husband Dillon Passage sent the Tiger King a heartfelt video message for their third wedding anniversary urging him to ‘stay strong’ and said he will be home soon
‘If something like that had gone down in the Gulf, no one would have found wreckage.’
According to police, Carole Baskin was never a suspect in her husband’s disappearance.
Her first husband, Michael Murdock whom she married aged 17 and who is the father of her daughter, Jamie, is rarely mentioned, and she has claimed he was ‘extremely abusive’.
She met Howard at a fundraiser five years after Lewis’s disappearance. ‘I hit the jackpot,’ she says. ‘He tells everyone his most important mission is to make me happy.’
Certainly, Tiger King viewers will be familiar with footage of Howard gazing in adoration at his wife, while their wedding pictures have gone viral. Carole was dressed traditionally in white, while Howard turned up dressed as a caveman.
‘Oh, those pictures are hilarious,’ Carole says happily.
And what of her recent revelations that she is bisexual?
‘I’ve had relationships with women throughout my life, but not since I married Howie, I’ve been in a monogamous relationship for 18 years,’ she says.
However, she confirms she did once advertise for a ‘wife’ back in the Eighties.
‘The advert was my warped sense of humour,’ she says. ‘I needed someone to cook and clean, and the person who responded was heterosexual, so I never once made a pass at her. She was the best wife — she was a great cook and kept the house spotless.’
Finally, I ask if she’s ever thought of writing about her extraordinary life? ‘Oh, I’ve been approached many times,’ she says. ‘But my story isn’t done yet. Not until we end the captive ownership of big cats in America — or until somebody kills me.’
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