As depicted in the docuseries, Carole Baskin and her group Big Cat Rescue was the leader of the charge against Joe Exotic and his zoo, frequently calling him out for his treatment of the tigers and other exotic animals in his care.
To put it mildly, things escalated. Big time. But, while Exotic is currently serving time in prison after being convicted of trying to put a hit out on Baskin, it is the latter who has been named the “bad guy” of the documentary. Indeed, a fast-growing petition asking for Exotic to be pardoned paints him as the victim of this so-called scheming woman.
“Consider that poor Joe, was vilified for demanding the truth to come out about a powerful woman,” it reads. “A woman who used her feminine wiles to accrue untold levels of wealth and influence, leaving a path of destruction and dead bodies in her wake.”
The “dead bodies in her wake” line refers, of course, to one of Tiger King’s main plot lines, in which Exotic accuses Baskin of being responsible for the disappearance of her first husband Don Lewis.
And it’s this baseless speculation which is set to be explored in a new spin-off documentary.
As revealed in Tiger King, Baskin married Lewis in 1991, after a chance late-night encounter at the side of a busy road.
In 1997, however, Lewis disappeared. After much talk of absconding to Costa Rica, he vanished in the middle of the night without leaving so much as a note – although his white 1989 Dodge van was found at the Pilot Country Airport in Springhill, Florida, some 40 miles away from his and Baskin’s sanctuary.
Naturally, everyone looks to a spouse when people disappear. However, no charges were set against Baskin for Lewis’ disappearance.
Lewis was declared legally dead in 2002, despite the fact that no trace of him was ever found. And it’s worth noting that Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister recently declared that his department does not “have any type of evidence, not one piece, that suggests that [Lewis] was killed” or that a crime was even committed, and also stated his opinion that Tiger King was spun for entertainment.
Despite this, though, Investigation Discovery’s upcoming documentary seeks to unveil new information about the missing millionaire. Based on their press release about Investigating the Strange World of Joe Exotic, though, it’s clear that they – much like Tiger King before them – will be heavily focused on Exotic’s claims against Baskin.
“Is she a selfless crusader and protector of animals, who found unimaginable strength despite the mysterious disappearance of her husband?” the release reads.
“Or are we witnessing Carole Baskin’s master plan finally take effect? Despite her claims of innocence, did she orchestrate the disappearance of Don Lewis to seize control of his fortune, consolidate power and lay waste to her foes?
“No one seems to be talking – except for one man – and that man is the center of ID’s upcoming investigative series.”
It’s worth noting that Baskin has already expressed her disappointment with Tiger King’s unsavoury portrayal of her.
Indeed, in a post entitled Refuting Netflix Tiger King (which Baskin shared on her Big Cat Rescue website), she claimed that documentary makers told her they wanted to make the big cat version of Blackfish, the documentary about the treatment of whales at SeaWorld, to expose the misery caused by the breeding of big cat cub petting.
“There are no words for how disappointing it is to see that the series not only does not do any of that, but has had the sole goal of being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers,” she writes. “As part of that, it has a segment devoted to suggesting, with lies and innuendos from people who are not credible, that I had a role in the disappearance of my husband Don in 1997.
“The series presents this without any regard for the truth or in most cases even giving me an opportunity before publication to rebut the absurd claims. They did not care about truth. The unsavoury lies are better for getting viewers. And there is no short, simple way to refute so many lies.”
It’s clear that Baskin is unhappy with her portrayal, and it’s easy to see why. A great deal of time is spent on an already closed murder investigation, digging up old scandals at the behest of Exotic, a man who threatened her life on multiple occasions.
Likewise, the documentary-makers interviewed a number of individuals with a clear bias against Baskin: the ex-wife Lewis left for her, her step-daughters (whom he didn’t acknowledge in his will), a number of Exotic’s staff, Exotic’s lawyer, and Exotic himself.
In fact, it’s almost entirely up to Baskin and her new husband, Howard, to refute the claims made against her – claims so ridiculous (that she put Lewis through the meat grinder and fed him to her big cats) that she can’t help but roll her eyes and laugh over them as the questions are posed to her.
Louis Theroux, meanwhile – who first met and worked with Exotic in 2011 when producing his own BBC documentary, America’s Most Dangerous Pets – has also spoken out in defence of Baskin.
Opening up his Instagram account to questions, the documentarian made it abundantly clear that he contests the idea that she fed the body of her late husband to her tigers after murdering him..
“My opinion is, it seems very unlikely,” Theroux said on Instagram. The filmmaker also confirmed this wasn’t the first he’d heard of it, that Exotic “told [him] the same thing in 2011.”
Essentially, Exotic’s slanderous campaign against Baskin has been furthered by Netflix’s Tiger King. After all, he’s a charismatic, larger-than-life individual – utterly relatable in his feelings of being an outcast and a misfit – whose ridiculous behaviour audiences couldn’t help but fall in love with.
This is, though, the same man who has been nursing a vendetta against Baskin for years. Who dressed sex dolls up as Baskin and fired bullets into their heads. Who blew them up with explosives. Who threatened to kill Baskin, and indeed is in prison serving time for arranging her murder.
Why, then, are we giving any credence to his claims against her?
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.
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