1. Home
  2. life
  3. news
  4. Carole Baskin addresses criticism over having unpaid volunteers, and says it could not 'be further from the truth' that they are unskilled

Carole Baskin addresses criticism over having unpaid volunteers, and says it could not 'be further from the truth' that they are unskilled

Amanda Krause   

Carole Baskin addresses criticism over having unpaid volunteers, and says it could not 'be further from the truth' that they are unskilled
  • Though "Tiger King" star Carole Baskin has been praised for her animal advocacy over the years, she's also been widely criticized for employing a large group of unpaid volunteers at her sanctuary Big Cat Rescue.
  • In an email sent to Insider, Baskin defended having 80 to 110 volunteers, and said that critics often feel "threatened" by them, as she thinks they themselves wish to be paid for working with big cats.
  • She also said that some people assume unpaid volunteers are not skilled enough to work with wild animals, but that their assumptions could not "be farther from the truth."
  • Instead, Baskin says her volunteers are "highly trained" through online courses and hands-on learning experiences.

In the months since Netflix has released "Tiger King," controversy has surrounded almost all of its stars — especially animal activist Carole Baskin.

Not only has her longtime feud with former zookeeper Joseph Maldonado-Passage (aka Joe Exotic) been put under the spotlight, but some have speculated that she may have had a role in the disappearance of her first husband, Don Lewis; Baskin has denied any involvement, and previously spoke about Lewis going missing in a YouTube video.

Some "Tiger King" viewers have also taken issue with the fact that Baskin operates her sanctuary Big Cat Rescue with the help of up to 100 unpaid volunteers. Critics argue that this practice could exploit workers and potentially harm animals in the belief that volunteers might not have the proper experience needed to provide the best possible care to her cats.

In an email sent to Insider, Baskin defended her sanctuary, spoke about her volunteers, and explained what it takes to work at Big Cat Rescue.

Speaking to Insider, Carole Baskin said that some people — namely Big Cat Rescue donors — support her choice to work with unpaid volunteers

"In most sanctuaries and zoos, the biggest expense is salaries," Baskin told Insider over email. "Big Cat Rescue donors love that none of their donations have ever gone to salaries or administration costs of the sanctuary because all of our animal care is done by 80 to 110 highly-trained volunteers and interns."

Of course, Baskin does work with some paid staff members. Up until recently, the animal activist said she employed 20 people at Big Cat Rescue. However, that number changed when the coronavirus pandemic struck and halted guided tours of the sanctuary, which previously provided Big Cat Rescue with one third of its revenue.

"The 20 paid administration staff were paid from tour revenue and gift shop sales," Baskin said. "But when COVID-19 and the fallout from the mischaracterization in 'Tiger King' hit, we had to lay off half of those paid staff."

Additionally, Baskin said she and her husband Howard are not taking paychecks for the time being as a result of the pandemic.

Baskin previously told Insider she felt Big Cat Rescue was "grossly mischaracterized in 'Tiger King,'" and expressed concern that the docuseries could deter new donors. Representatives for Netflix, and "Tiger King" directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, did not respond to Insider's previous requests for comment.

According to Baskin, there are 2 reasons why people criticize her unpaid volunteers: money and misconceptions

In an Insider piece about how "Tiger King" depicted Big Cat Rescue, Maddie Stone described Baskin's use of volunteers as "controversial, even among those in the animal-care community." Carnivore ecologist Tyus Williams, for example, told Stone that free volunteer work can discourage those without financial freedom to help. Jake Belair, an animal keeper at the Nashville Zoo, said animals "deserve expert care, not free care."

Baskin, however, sees things differently.

"Sometimes we are criticized by those in the exotic-animal 'industry' for relying on volunteers for animal care, and the reason is two fold," she said. "First, people want to get paid to work with wild animals, so when Big Cat Rescue shows that it can be done to the very highest standards with volunteers, it threatens their dream jobs."

The animal activist also said that many people assume those who work for free are unskilled, which she feels can not "be further from the truth."

According to Baskin, those who wish to volunteer at Big Cat Rescue must first pass 50 courses from Zoo College, an online school. From there, they're required to "observe expert keepers doing a task six times," and then later "be observed by an expert keeper while they perform the task six times."

"So just to complete one task of looking for and finding cat poop, the new volunteers will have had 12 days of training here before they can look for poop by themselves," Baskin said.

Chaos is celebrating her 3 year rescue anniversary! Chaos is a caracal who was born in 2009 and came to Big Cat Rescue in 2017. When the Ohio Department of Agriculture learned of the illegal possession of Chaos the caracal at a breeding cattery, they seized Chaos and a male caracal named Cyrus and a serval named Zucari and asked Big Cat Rescue to come to pick them up and give them a forever home. All of the cats had been declawed, which was illegal. In Ohio Chaos shared a room in a basement with Cyrus. The Agency told us that the only opportunity Cyrus and Chaos had to be outside was a small outdoor cage attached to the basement. They were put in the basement together for the purpose of breeding caracals and hybrid cats. Big cats in the wild normally have litters every few years because the females have to raise their young and teach them to hunt before having another litter. But at captive breeding facilities like this, the females are bred incessantly which is believed to promote mammary cancer. Fortunately, the misery of her first 8 years is over and now Chaos spends her days enjoying her spacious cat-a-tat.

A post shared by bigcatrescue (@bigcatrescue) on Jun 6, 2020 at 5:48am PDT

As explained in the second episode of "Tiger King," Big Cat Rescue's unpaid volunteers can do different jobs depending on their experience and time spent at the sanctuary. The hours worked by volunteers are more flexible than those of interns, who receive housing, a stipend, and work approximately 50 hours per week for 12 weeks, according to the Big Cat Rescue website.

"Another layer of accountability is our time requirement," Baskin continued. "People must put in between four and 32 hours per week, depending on their level of proficiency and training, or they cannot remain in the program. We use a shirt-color system so we can tell at a distance the level of training a volunteer has, so we know if they are allowed to be near certain cats."

"No one who has actually trained here as a volunteer or intern would ever say they weren't thoroughly trained and managed," the activist said. "At many zoos, a person can be hired to care for big cats and within a week, with no formal training in caring for big cats, have the keys to the cages. Enshala the tiger, who was accidentally set free and then shot to death at the Lowry Park Zoo, was just one sad example."

"At Big Cat Rescue, a person works with the smaller cats, like 25-pound bobcats to 40-pound lynx, for two years before they can ever even be within three feet of the outside of a big cat's cage, and they never get the keys," she continued.

Gilligan the Canada Lynx is ready for his afternoon tuna sicle! We mix tuna and water then freeze them in solo cups for the cats to enjoy daily!

A post shared by bigcatrescue (@bigcatrescue) on May 29, 2020 at 11:18am PDT

And that's where Big Cat Rescue's volunteer and intern programs differ from those of other sanctuaries, according to Baskin.

"Interns put in more hours, but we provide them with housing and a food stipend, whereas many other facilities charge thousands of dollars for people to come play around at animal care for a week or two," Baskin said. "Most of those places offer hands-on play time and are really just exploitative money-making schemes operating under the guise of conservation."

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Big Cat Rescue has found ways to continue most of its usual operations

Florida, where Big Cat Rescue is located, has been majorly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of writing, more than 62,000 residents have become infected, and another 2,700 have died after becoming sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control. As a result, Governor Ron DeSantis ordered a statewide lockdown at the beginning of April.

Luckily for Big Cat Rescue, however, the sanctuary has not had to limit the number of staff onsite to care for its animals.

"Our number of volunteers has stayed steady," Baskin previously told Insider. "Even though we typically have 80 to 110 volunteers, each one is only required to put in between four and 32 hours per week, so we have never had an issue of too many people at a time."

Those workers do, however, have to follow strict guidelines to ensure their safety, and that of the cats they're caring for.

"We have always been fanatical about cleanliness and prevention of transmission of disease by wearing gloves while preparing food and cleaning," Baskin said. "We have added wearing face masks when preparing the cat's food and when we are in close proximity to them."

Happy 24th Birthday to Purrfection the Ocelot!!!

A post shared by bigcatrescue (@bigcatrescue) on May 22, 2020 at 4:17am PDT

Still, Baskin said it's unlikely that Big Cat Rescue will open to the public again in the future, both as a result of the pandemic and backlash from 'Tiger King'

"If we were going to open to the public, we would require masks, temperature scans, and some sort of accounting for where they were before coming here," Baskin said. "Even then, I don't know that I would feel safe exposing our volunteers or cats to this invisible killer."

She added: "Even if COVID-19 is under control by the end of next year — and I think it will be at least that long — I don't know if I would ever take the risk of allowing one deranged person from the #FreeJoeExotic clan to gain access."

To learn more about Big Cat Rescue's mission, Baskin recommends doing so through a virtual reality section of the Big Cat Rescue website here and here.