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Carole Baskin says she's not sure if Big Cat Rescue will open to the public again after 'Tiger King'

Amanda Krause   

Carole Baskin says she's not sure if Big Cat Rescue will open to the public again after 'Tiger King'
  • Animal activist Carole Baskin, who owns the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, became famous after she was featured in Netflix's controversial docuseries "Tiger King."
  • Speaking to Insider, Baskin said she might not be able to reopen her sanctuary to the public after the pandemic.
  • She fears the sanctuary's animals could become infected with the coronavirus.
  • She also expressed concern that people with misconceptions of her sanctuary, namely fans of Joe Exotic, could attempt to harm the cats.

It's been a whirlwind year for Big Cat Rescue, the animal sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, run by Carole Baskin.

In March, Netflix released the controversial docuseries, "Tiger King," which attempts to shed light on the big-cat trade through the lens of a feud between Baskin and Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a former zookeeper who goes by Joe Exotic; Exotic is currently serving time in prison after being convicted of plotting to murder Baskin.

And then the coronavirus pandemic struck, causing Big Cat Rescue to alter its daily operations.

Speaking with Insider over email, Baskin shared what it's been like to advocate for animals during this time, how she and her husband are no longer taking paychecks, and why she's not sure if she'll ever open Big Cat Rescue to the public again.

Simba Tiger is bright-eyed and ready for breakfast! Happy #Caturday

A post shared by bigcatrescue (@bigcatrescue) on May 30, 2020 at 5:17am PDT

Carole Baskin told Insider that the pandemic has forced Big Cat Rescue to cut some members of its staff

According to its website, Big Cat Rescue is "one of the largest accredited sanctuaries in the world dedicated to abused and abandoned big cats." More than 50 feline species live on-site, and are cared for by Baskin, her husband Howard, staff members, and approximately 80 to 110 volunteers. Typically, the sanctuary is open to visitors throughout the year.

During the pandemic, however, guided tours were temporarily halted to maintain the safety of its big cats, volunteers, and employees.

"About one third of our revenue is from guided tours of the sanctuary," Baskin told Insider over email. "Losing that meant we had to let go 10 of our 20 staff, and my husband and I are not taking paychecks."

Still, Big Cat Rescue is working on various methods to spread its message and advocacy online.

"We are trying out new ways of bringing virtual tours to our supporters," she said. "We have always done Facebook Live broadcasts each day, but now we are trying to bring more consistent content like Feeding Tours LIVE, Keeper Tours LIVE, Singing Sundays, Cats for Kids on Saturdays, etc."

"We have an educational app coming out called Big Cat Rescue VR for Oculus, and have some teachers working on class materials we can offer teachers and home schoolers to go along with that content," she continued.

Despite her sanctuary's lost revenue, Baskin says the coronavirus makes it too risky to open Big Cat Rescue again

In recent weeks, zoos and other animal attractions around the country have started to reopen, welcoming large crowds on their opening days. For example, Oklahoma's Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park — which was formerly owned by Exotic and seen throughout "Tiger King" — was reportedly crowded on its opening day, with many visitors not wearing masks.

Baskin said that while she would implement measures to prevent something similar from happening at Big Cat Rescue, she's not sure she'd be willing to open to the public while the pandemic is still a threat.

"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."

What a guy that Max bobcat is! Handsome right!!??!!

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It's not just the pandemic that has Baskin worried about strangers entering her sanctuary

In addition to the virus, Baskin is also worried about fans of Exotic, who she fears might cause harm to her cats in response to their ongoing feud.

As of Monday, an Oklahoma judge ruled that Baskin is now in control of Exotic's old zoo, the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, which was most recently formally under Jeff Lowe's ownership. She will not receive any of the park's animals, but told Insider that Big Cat Rescue will "stand ready to assist" should the need arise; Lowe has 120 days to vacate the zoo's premises, according to the ruling.

"I think we have already found our new normal," Baskin told Insider. "I have no delusions that we would ever be able to open to the public again. 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."

"Even though our tours are guided and have a backup person to keep the group of 20 or less together, it would be just too easy for a pair or group to work together to distract our volunteers long enough to throw some poisoned treat into a cage for a cat to consume," she continued. "It's just not worth the risk."

According to Baskin, there's 'not enough space in this article for everything that "Tiger King" got wrong'

She previously tried to film a video about the topic that ended up being over two hours long (it's now available to watch on Big Cat Rescue's website), and says the series could negatively affect Big Cat Rescue in the future.

"We were grossly mischaracterized in 'Tiger King,' and while that didn't affect our current donors who know that Big Cat Rescue is one of the most highly acclaimed sanctuaries in the world and has a perfect 100% score with Charity Navigator, I do fear that it will be much harder to attract new donors who don't already know us," Baskin said.

"Some sanctuaries choose not to be open to the public at all, but I always felt it was important to be that transparent to donors," she added. "They could see every corner of what we do here and know it was all good. If we cannot open to the public again due to the crazy people who have been inspired by 'Tiger King' to want to kill our animals and hurt our people, then I think it will be difficult for donors to really know what happens here from their own physical presence."

Representatives for Netflix, and "Tiger King" directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, did not respond to Insider's requests for comment by the time of publication.

In an Insider piece about how Baskin and Big Cat Rescue were depicted in "Tiger King," Maddie Stone argued that the shots of the sanctuary's animal enclosures were misleading, and "look appallingly small in the few glimpses we get."

Valerie Taylor, the executive director of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries — which conducted an audit of Big Cat Rescue in 2019 — told Stone "these enclosures are for small cats, such as bobcats and servals."

As Stone's article points out, in reality, most of the sanctuary's habitats are larger than 1,200 square feet, and live webcams show that the cats have access to "shaded areas with trees, open-air play yards, and a lake."

Citing Taylor, who said big-cat enclosures were more spacious than the enclosures shown in "Tiger King," Stone noted that "the largest is over two acres, far exceeding the GFAS's minimum requirements."

Baskin said some viewers of "Tiger King" often misunderstand her sanctuary's purpose.

"After 'Tiger King,' I can tell you the things I hear most from people are that we should breed big cats to save them from extinction and turn them all loose in the wild where they belong," Baskin said.

Baskin noted that "those ideas contradict each other," and adds that it seems "the vast majority of the hate mail" she receives at the sanctuary "is because we oppose breeding endangered species in captivity AND because we don't turn all the cats we rescue loose."

"It tells me we have a lot of educating to do because a huge percentage of the public doesn't know that there are no captive breeding programs for big cats that could ever result in them repopulating the wild, because it's illegal to turn a captive-bred wild cat loose," she added.

The biggest difference between Big Cat Rescue and zoos, however, is their philosophy, according to Baskin.

"Our belief is that no wild cat should be born for life in a cage," she said. "We believe that people will never save habitat as long as they can get their 'big cat fix' at a zoo. If the only place to see wild cats is in the wild, then people will do the hard work of protecting habitat which ends up saving us all."

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.