Tiger King is a docuseries full of villains.
There’s Jeff Lowe, the con artist personification of a midlife crisis who couldn’t wait to get his pregnant wife “back in the gym” once she gave birth. There’s Doc Antle, whose alleged controlling, cult-like conditions of his own animal sanctuary (complete with coercive breast implants for employees) could fill a whole other documentary all on its own. And then, of course, there’s the convicted criminal, animal abuser, and renowned mullet-wearer Joe Exotic.
And yet, no one has faced more backlash since Tiger King‘s release than animal activist Carole Baskin.
Described by her husband as the “Mother Teresa of cats,” Carole Baskin is the owner of the Big Cat Rescue animal sanctuary, a facility with the mission of providing care for rescued big cats and ending the abuse of big cats in captivity. According to a statement on the nonprofit’s website, Baskin agreed to be interviewed by the Tiger King crew under the premise that the docuseries would act as an exposé on the world of big cat animal exploitation.
Baskin had hoped that Tiger King would provide a platform for her to raise awareness about the unethical business of cub petting for profit and the rampant breeding of big cats in captivity that sustains that business. She hoped that viewers watching at home would be astonished to hear about the mistreatment of these beloved animals and would ardently champion the cause that she has held dear for so long.
Instead, in her first interview since the series aired, Baskin revealed that she has been met with so many death threats that she’s afraid to leave her house.
The vehement hatred of Carole Baskin is hard to qualify. Of course, much of it stems from on the show’s (unsubstantiated) speculation that Baskin killed her second husband Don Lewis, who went missing in 1997, the rumor of choice being that she fed him to the tigers. A compelling story, sure, but one that has no evidence to back it up. (Though if I walked through life surrounded by a cloud of suspicion over whether I fed my husband to a tiger I maybe wouldn’t have mentioned on camera that covering a person in sardine oil is a great way to get a cat to eat them, but I digress.)
But even though many viewers think that Baskin may have had a hand in her husband’s disappearance, the fact is that Joe Exotic was literally convicted in a murder-for-hire plot. He was tried and found guilty in a court of law, not by armchair detectives with a binge-watching problem. Yet, when compared to Baskin, his reputation still manages to come out of the documentary relatively unscathed. Exotic is treated as an eccentric, well-meaning uncle at Thanksgiving, one who has had too many beers and whose unsavory comments you laugh off. Celebrities are even dressing up like him while in quarantine. Meanwhile, Baskin is given a full villain edit, complete with a Wicked Witch of the West aesthetic, bicycle and all.
There’s something about the treatment of Baskin, both in the docuseries and by viewers upon its release, that smacks of inherent misogyny. Because ultimately, there is nothing tangible, no reason based in fact, that attributes to people’s overwhelming distaste for Baskin. Rather, she is merely labeled as unlikable, a trait that is often ascribed to women, particularly women in a position of power. Carole Baskin refuses to be silenced and refuses to back down against Joe Exotic, and she has the money and the resources to go toe-to-toe with him in the quest to shut down his roadside zoo. Maybe our inherent bias is why those actions are met with such overwhelming negativity.
Certainly, much of the overtly sexist behavior in the show is proliferated by Joe Exotic himself: he harasses Baskin relentlessly online, routinely calls her “that bitch,” and even goes so far as to name a mannequin “Carole” and then shoot the mannequin into smithereens. His violence and clear instability is something that should be gravely unsettling.
Instead, cries of #FreeJoeExotic have filled Twitter timelines. “That bitch Carole Baskin” has become a catchphrase. Joe Exotic gets to experience — albeit from prison — the fame he always wanted; President Trump has even said that he will “look into” pardoning Exotic for his crimes.
Meanwhile, Carole Baskin gets to be the brunt of the joke on an SNL skit.
For her part, Baskin wants people to shift their focus to what she believes should have been the crux of the docuseries: the mistreatment of big cats.
“I just feel so angry that people have totally missed the point. And the point is these cubs are being abused and exploited and the public is enabling that… [Viewers] saw cubs being dragged away from their mother. Where are those memes? Where are those comments?”
Despite the unexpected backlash, Baskin is choosing to focus on the silver lining of the series’ popularity. She continued,
“I really hope what will come of this is that law enforcement will take [animal welfare] seriously. We’ve all been screaming at the top of our lungs for 20 years that this abuse was happening, and no one was listening.”
Tiger King is currently streaming on Netflix.
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Michelle Vincent is a project manager and freelance writer. She enjoys traveling, is worried she won’t love her future children as much as she loves her dogs, and is actively recruiting podcast recommendations.