In March, Netflix dropped its latest docuseries, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. It centres around a feud between two big cat park owners in America, Joe Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic and his rival Carole Baskin.
Exotic was once the owner of G.W Exotic Zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma and Baskin was the founder of The Big Cat Rescue Sanctuary in Tampa, Florida and both raked in thousands of dollars from visitors every year.
Alongside the feud viewers witness polyamorous relationships, drug abuse, presidential campaigns, paranoia and murder plots. This TV series about two parks originally created on the basis of the protection and conservation of large cats, quickly unravels into hysteria. It’s Animal Park meets a Murder Mystery.
But if we consider the amount of money spent on videos, campaigns and ultimately hitmen, could this not have been put to better use? The money may have been stretched further if it had only been spent on protecting these amazing large cats.
The brief Joe Exotic story
On 2 April last year, Exotic was convicted on two counts of murder for hire, eight violations of the Lacey Act – a conservation law – and nine violations of the Endangered Species Act. On 22 January 2020 he was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison.
When G.W Exotic Animal Park first opened in 1999, Joe Exotic only had a deer, buffalo and mountain lion then a year later came the first two tigers Tess and Tickles. The zoo quickly grew as Exotic took in more large cats and also started to breed them. It soon housed 89 cats and more than 1,000 animals in all. At the start of his animal career, Exotic stresses that these large cats do not belong in America and instead should be in Asia and Africa, his moral compass pointing the right way.
However, as his park began to grow, so did Exotic’s celebrity status and he began to tour shopping malls across America with a handful of his animals. He would occasionally perform an illusionist show, something he used to do regularly before the park opened and would also charge customers for photo opportunities.
Within a short space of time, Exotic was breeding tigers and selling them on for profit to new large cat owners, tearing the cubs away from their mothers within seconds of them being born. In the Tiger King series, Exotic boasts that he could get around two thousand dollars for just one cub.
National Geographic writer Rachel Bale stresses that people don’t often think about what happens to tiger cubs once they are too big to be petted. “Cub-petting facilities often speed-breed their tigers so there’s a constant supply…” she says. “As soon as a litter is born, the cubs are removed from the mother, making her go into heat sooner so she can breed again.”
As the series unravelled, it became abundantly clear that Exotic might be getting rid of the cubs which were too big to be petted. The show also implies he was euthanising particular large cats and abusing them for financial gain. Clearly income wins over the welfare of the large cats. The seemingly animal-loving man Exotic set out to be has started to disappear and instead we start to see a man thirsty for power.
Getting a taste of celebrity status, Exotic produces his own music videos and album, although whether it was actually his voice is questionable. To take things even further, the park owner later ran for president which unsurprisingly he did not win. While most budding candidates might give out free pens or posters, Exotic handed out condoms splashed with his face on them. More and arguably unnecessary money is spent on Exotic’s career rather than on the welfare of the tigers.
As Exotic’s celebrity status grew, he starts to gain the attention of Baskin who campaigned against him breeding animals and using them for tours across America. She wrote to malls asking them to ban his visits and encouraged her fans to do the same.
She also accused Exotic of treating his employees with abuse. Exotic apparently found many of his employees on Craigslist so they would be in a potentially vulnerable and desperate situation. He picked up everyone from the homeless to those on the run from other states. If Exotic supposedly took advantage of people like that, maybe it was inevitable that he’d treat his animals in the same way.
At the start of the docuseries Baskin is portrayed as a fun-loving, animal saving hippy who only cares about saving the large cats.
Her clothing is largely printed with some kind of cat design such as tiger or leopard. Big Cat Rescue claims to be a not-for-profit organisation and Baskin’s networth is estimated to be between 10 and 20 million dollars.
Some of that came from her missing husband Don Lewis, but she also amassed a healthy amount from being the CEO of the sanctuary. However, Tiger King revealed that Baskin does make a profit from the sanctuary as customers are charged a fee to visit.
Throughout her career, Baskin becomes a social media mogul, creating video content for her fans across the globe. She opens her videos to her fans with the now famous tagline, “Hey there you cool cats and kittens”. As the series goes on, she seems to spend less time with the cats and more time with the camera. She even admitted she knows hardly any of her park volunteers, implying she doesn’t spend much time with the animals and the people who care for them.
The series then quickly turns on her and it is revealed that her first husband Don Lewis went missing in 1997 and his body has never been found. While it is not said, it is implied that Baskin knows more than she lets on about his disappearance.
Already fuelled with dislike for Baskin, Exotic latches onto this, making videos accusing Baskin of killing her husband and feeding him to the tigers. Both park owners are at loggerheads with each other, posting many rage-filled videos and blog posts online in an attempt to bring the other one down.
Exotic takes further measures, sending snakes to Baskin’s home and dressing up mannequins in her image and then blowing them up.
Later in the series, we see Exotic make another attempt to get at Baskin and gain more publicity, by changing the name of his park to the same as Baskin’s. Very soon both were engulfed in a huge legal battle. However, the Big Cat Rescue founder ends up successfully suing Exotic in 2011 for trademark infringement in a one-million-dollar lawsuit. As a result, this left both of his parents bankrupt.
Finally reaching boiling point, Exotic paid two hitmen to kill Baskin, but one ended up being an undercover FBI agent thus ultimately ending Exotic’s reign. When negotiating fees for the hit, Exotic says he would even sell “a bunch of tigers” to get the money. The welfare of the animals was not a consideration.
This article only touches at the edge of what must have been a turbulent number of years for both Exotic and Baskin not to mention the general cost of providing for the animals. If we think about the money spent on music videos, campaigns, adverts, albums, blog posts, investigations and potential hitmen, so much could have been done to actually help place these animals back into their natural habitats.
In America, the estimated number of tigers currently held in captivity is 10,000, with the global number estimated at 25,000. In the wild, there are fewer than 4,000 tigers – less than a quarter of those held in captivity. According to research by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), less than 5% (less than 350) of tigers in captivity are managed by AZA, leaving many other tigers unaccounted for in America.
At the end of the series, Exotic’s presidential campaign manager Joshua Dial says, “We’ve completely lost sight and lost touch of what really matters here. That’s the conservation and protection of the species of this planet.”
He hits the nail on the head here. Exotic and Baskin forgot what their original goal was. Instead they sought out to become power hungry celebrities, focusing on making a fortune for themselves.
They could have used their time differently, helping to contribute towards the protection and conservation of large cats. Their money skills and power could have been put to better use and it’s wrong they lost sight of that.
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