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The big lie in 'Tiger King' and the truth about Carole Baskin

Maddie Stone   

The big lie in 'Tiger King' and the truth about Carole Baskin
  • The wildly popular Netflix docuseries "Tiger King" inaccurately depicts Carole Baskin's Big Cat Rescue as keeping animals in tiny, unkempt, and inhumane enclosures while she gets rich off tourists.
  • "Tiger King" misrepresents Big Cat Rescue's animal cages. "Most sanctuaries would kill to have a two-acre enclosure" like the sanctuary has for its tigers, says Noelle Almrud of the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance.
  • While Joe Exotic claims in the series that Baskin is raking in cash from the sanctuary, she made just $55,316 as CEO of Big Cat Rescue in 2017, and Howard Baskin made $62,671 as CFO.
  • But Big Cat Rescue's heavy reliance on volunteers is controversial. "I believe when it first started up, it absolutely had to rely on volunteers, but now they are so well known ... that they should be actually staffing people," one volunteer told Insider.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

If you've watched "Tiger King," Netflix's docuseries about the lives of America's most infamous tiger breeders, you might come away thinking the big-cat sanctuary run by Joe Exotic's archnemesis, Carole Baskin, isn't all that different from Exotic's zoo, where, as depicted in the series, tigers are crammed together into small cages, fed expired Walmart meat, and routinely manhandled by the zoo's staff and hordes of visitors.

It's a viewpoint articulated early on by reality-TV producer Rick Kirkham and reinforced by Baskin's portrayal throughout the seven-part series.

"In my opinion, Carole Baskin was just as bad as Joe," Kirkham, a recurring figure in the series, says in the opening episode. "They were both, you know, taking advantage of exotic animals to make money."

But while Baskin bought, bred, and sold exotic cats decades ago, conservationists and animal-welfare advocates say there is a world of difference between how animals live at Big Cat Rescue, a nonprofit animal sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), and how they were treated at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, the zoo Joe Exotic ran before he was sent to prison after being convicted in a murder-for-hire plot to kill Baskin.

"Tiger King" has valid criticisms of Big Cat Rescue, in particular its decision to rely exclusively on volunteers for animal care, but it gives the misleading impression that Baskin's animals are kept in tiny, unkempt, inhumane enclosures. It also fails to distinguish the fundamental difference between the types of businesses Exotic and Baskin run.

While for-profit zoos have created a crisis of thousands of tigers living in captivity, nonprofit sanctuaries that don't breed and don't allow cub petting are trying to fix that.

"There is a huge difference between Joe's place and Carole's," Pam Fulk, executive director of Carolina Tiger Rescue, said. "I've seen behind-the-scenes footage of what went on at his place — it was disgusting. I've been to Big Cat, I know Carole and Howard [Carole Baskin's husband]. It is not on the same planet."

'Tiger King' misrepresents Big Cat Rescue's animal enclosures

Spread across 67 acres in Tampa, Florida, Big Cat Rescue provides lifelong care for exotic cats born into captivity. It's home to over 50 animals, including bobcats, servals, caracals, leopards, lions, and tigers, all of which are kept in fenced enclosures that attempt to recreate a variety of habitat types.

One of the most misleading things about the portrayal of Big Cat Rescue in "Tiger King" is its presentation of those cages, which look appallingly small in the few glimpses we get, including a memorable shot of a cat eating in a tiny part of a much larger enclosure that Joe Exotic claims is the entire enclosure.

Valerie Taylor, the executive director of GFAS, said that, to her, it looked as if all of the animal filming at Big Cat Rescue was done "in front of temporary or feeding enclosures" that jut out around the edges of habitats.

In reality, Big Cat Rescue's smallest enclosures are 1,200 square feet, according to a post Baskin published on the sanctuary's website. (Baskin declined to be interviewed for this story.) Taylor says these enclosures are for small cats, such as bobcats and servals.

For bigger cats, like tigers, enclosures at Big Cat Rescue can be much larger, said Taylor, whose organization last year conducted an audit of Baskin's sanctuary. The largest is over two acres, far exceeding the GFAS's minimum requirements.

"Most sanctuaries would kill to have a two-acre enclosure," said Noelle Almrud, the steering committee chair for the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance, which comprises sanctuaries and animal-welfare groups.

A number of webcams at Big Cat Rescue show a diversity of habitats, including shaded areas with trees, open-air play yards, and a lake.

"The animals are treated excellently," said one former Big Cat Rescue volunteer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, adding that they are given "lots of enrichment activities."

Big Cat Rescue relies on volunteers. Some say that's a problem.

Big Cat Rescue's heavy reliance on volunteers is controversial, even among those in the animal-care community.

According to Baskin, the sanctuary has more than 100 volunteers who help take care of the animals. While it's not uncommon for a nonprofit to use volunteers — which doesn't necessarily imply exploitation, as Exotic suggests in "Tiger King" when he says Baskin "brainwashed" people into working at her sanctuary without pay — some sources who spoke with Insider said they were still uncomfortable with it.

"Volunteers are vital to nonprofits, but I do have issues with the way Carole uses them exclusively," Jake Belair, an animal keeper at the Nashville Zoo, told Insider in an email. "Most of us in the animal care field have a four-year degree and years of practical experience. Animals deserve expert care, not free care."

Tyus Williams, a carnivore ecologist, said that while volunteering is laudable, relying exclusively on volunteers excludes those with less financial freedom from participating.

"There are people out there who would love to be involved in the efforts of assisting at ethical big cat sanctuaries but are incapable of doing so because they have fiscal burdens and responsibilities," Williams said in an email.

Big Cat Rescue spokeswoman Susan Bass said most nonprofits have volunteers and that "not paying someone doesn't equate to not being trained." Bass said the idea that the volunteer system is exclusionary is "nonsense," adding that the majority of volunteers have other jobs and can work any day of their choosing.

The former volunteer Insider spoke with said Big Cat Rescue's volunteers should receive compensation, "particularly considering how demanding the shifts are." When she worked at the sanctuary, from 2008 to 2012, she says she was expected to be in by 7 in the morning and usually wouldn't leave until 5 in the evening. Bass said that volunteers are asked to work four hours a week but can choose to work longer.

"I believe when it first started up, it absolutely had to rely on volunteers, but now they are so well known ... that they should be actually staffing people," the volunteer said. "Most of them work for free. Being paid minimum wage would make a huge difference."

No, Baskin isn't getting rich off Big Cat Rescue

In a video posted online this month, Baskin says that Big Cat Rescue had nearly two dozen staff and contractors before the coronavirus pandemic hit, all of whom were paid "wages comparable to others in the industry" to do administrative and management work. The sanctuary uses volunteers for animal care because people are willing to do that work without pay, Baskin says in the video.

While the sanctuary had to cut about half of its paid staff during the pandemic, Baskin said, it is hoping to rehire them after the crisis. Carole Baskin and her husband, Howard, are not taking a paycheck during the pandemic, she said.

While by her own account Carole Baskin inherited several million dollars after the disappearance of her former husband, Don Lewis, she doesn't appear to have enriched herself off the sanctuary much at all. For the first 20 years of its operation, she says she didn't take a paycheck.

In 2017 she made $55,316 as CEO, according to Charity Navigator. That same year Howard Baskin made $62,671 as CFO.

When Exotic claims in the series that Carole Baskin is personally making huge profits from the sanctuary, he may be referring to the fact that in recent years the sanctuary has generated over $1 million in revenue. But that money stays within the nonprofit, allowing it to expand and weather economic downturns.

Without volunteers to help keep costs down, that rainy-day fund might be substantially smaller.

"If you think what we make from tours pays for what we do, think again," Fulk, of Carolina Tiger Rescue, which also relies on volunteers, said. "If it were about money, I could be doing double or more the business I'm doing."

While footage in "Tiger King" showed a long line of people waiting to get into Baskin's sanctuary, suggesting it's packing the facilities to rake in money, Big Cat Rescue says that filming was done during a once-a-year event that's not representative of day-to-day activity, where visitors are shown around in groups of no more than 20 at a time. Cub petting, a great moneymaker at for-profit zoos such as Exotic's, doesn't happen there.

Audited financial records that Big Cat Rescue publishes on its website indicate that in 2018 educational tours and activities covered only 37% of the sanctuary's operating expenses.

In its most recent audit in 2017, Charity Navigator, which independently reviews the finances of nonprofits based on tax returns, gave Big Cat Rescue a perfect score of 100% for its financial health, accountability, and transparency.

Baskin used to breed and sell exotic cats — and says she made 'horrible mistakes'

The show makes one other criticism of Big Cat Rescue: its history. It may be an award-winning sanctuary today, but as the third episode of "Tiger King" shows, Baskin and her late husband, Don Lewis, were exotic-cat collectors in the '90s. Baskin even made a home video about how to care for exotic cats as pets.

But this is hardly a secret. Big Cat Rescue has an extensive history page devoted to how Baskin and Lewis used to buy, sell, and breed exotic cats, and how the sanctuary allowed visitors to pet animals up until 2003. Baskin says she made "horrible mistakes" early on.

Lis Gallant, a volcanologist at the University of South Florida who went on a tour of Big Cat Rescue in 2014, said that Carol Baskin spoke candidly at the time about her early exotic-cat-breeding efforts and how the sanctuary moved away from breeding once they learned more about the problems it creates. Big Cat Rescue isn't alone.

"A lot of places started out in that way," said Emily McCormack, the animal curator at the GFAS-accredited Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, adding that her refuge's founder grew up with pet lions. "The word here is 'learn and change.'"

True sanctuaries like Big Cat Rescue exist to put themselves out of business

GFAS-accredited sanctuaries such as Big Cat Rescue and for-profit zoos have fundamentally different missions. For-profit zoos are trying to make money showing animals to the public. Accredited sanctuaries, which in the US are all 501(c)(3) nonprofits, exist to rescue, rehabilitate, and care for animals abandoned or abused by humans and cannot be released into the wild.

Big Cat Rescue has been GFAS accredited since 2009. Like all other accredited sanctuaries, it has to undergo a renewal process every three years that includes updating its records and submitting to a site visit.

GFAS has an extensive list of standards, which cover everything from animal care — the animals must be given adequate space and housing, fed a healthy diet, and have their social needs met — to governance, outreach, and how new animals are acquired.

The sanctuary's most recent renewal was in 2019, and Taylor, of the GFAS, said the accrediting body had "no concerns" after its inspections. The GFAS gave Carol Baskin an award.

"We really feel that Big Cat Rescue serves as an exemplary model of a sanctuary that provides excellent humane and responsible care to its animal residents," Taylor said.

Many of the big cats that wind up at sanctuaries like Big Cat Rescue were pets discarded when the owner could no longer handle them. Others were held at roadside zoos that went out of business or were shut down.

As McCormack put it, accredited big-cat sanctuaries are "in existence" because of people like Joe Exotic, who breed the animals rampantly to ensure a steady flow of cubs that visitors can pay money to pet.

"If you're running a true sanctuary, the point is to change the laws and pretty much put the sanctuaries themselves out of business," McCormack said.

GFAS-accredited sanctuaries are prohibited from breeding wild animals, as well as buying and selling them. Wild animals can't be removed from the sanctuary premises for exhibition, public visitors must be escorted, and with rare exceptions visitors aren't allowed to have any direct contact with the animals.

In the case of big-cat sanctuaries, that means no cub petting — a practice that McCormack says deprives a baby of its mother's milk, which can bring down its immune system and lead to severe nutritional deficiencies.

This lucrative business encourages for-profit zoos to breed more cubs, which animal-welfare advocates say are often sent to live in substandard facilities, abandoned, or killed after they "age out" of being pettable.

'The cage will never be big enough'

The directors of "Tiger King" declined to be interviewed for this story, but in recent interviews director Eric Goode has suggested the show's critical portrayal of Big Cat Rescue was no accident. Speaking to The Washington Post, Goode said that as the show was being filmed "real questions" arose about Baskin's history and the evolution of her business.

"I think one of the more important questions was, 'If your mission is to tell people not to keep tigers and lions and leopards and jaguars in cages and bobcats and so forth, why do it?'" Goode said. "Why not really ask yourself a hard question and say, is it more humane to keep a tiger in a cage pacing neurotically for the rest of its life, or is it more humane to humanely euthanize that animal and put it out of its misery?"

Even the best sanctuaries are keeping wild animals caged for life. Everyone Insider spoke with for this story agreed it would be better if that wasn't the case, while at the same time emphasizing that these animals don't have the skills to survive in the wild, nor would releasing them be ethical from a conservation perspective.

"I think just living in captivity can be abusive," said Ed Stewart, president of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, which operates three GFAS-accredited sanctuaries in Northern California that care for mostly tigers and elephants. "Putting a wild animal in an enclosure, no matter where it is and how big it is, is extremely limiting."

"The cage will never be big enough," Tanya Smith, the president of the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, said.

But several experts balked at the idea that euthanasia was more humane than allowing healthy animals to live out their lives in places where they are well cared for.

Fulk, of Carolina Tiger Rescue, said it would effectively "legitimize" the practice of mass-producing and discarding big cats once they age out of cub petting.

"You could also look at it as, would the animal want to be killed or live in a two-acre habitat with grass and trees?" Almrud, the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance chair, said. "I can't answer that. Although it's never going to be the same as having a 500-acre territory to roam in, it's a lot better than being in a concrete cage."

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Read the original article on Insider