Carole Baskin says she is “absolutely relieved” the Tiger King, Joe Exotic, was not pardoned on the final day of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Carole’s co-star in the popular Netflix documentary series, former private zoo owner Joe Exotic, is serving a 22-year jail term for wildlife crimes and hiring a hit man to murder her.
As speculation grew that Mr Exotic could walk free, Carole had heard nothing from the White House, so she was forced to watch the news for updates.
When a limousine, makeup artist and hairdresser arrived outside the prison housing him, Carole says she wasn’t sure whether he’d made the president’s exclusive pardon list, or if it was a publicity stunt.
“I wasn't sure that it was ever a thing, but I'm absolutely relieved that it was not done,” Carole tells Yahoo Lifestyle Australia from her home at Big Cat Rescue headquarters in Florida.
“Because (Joe Exotic) was seeking a pardon, from the very time that he got convicted, it's been for close to a year worrying that that could happen.
“I don't think that could happen under any other president, but I think it could have happened (under President Trump).”
‘A whole lot scarier’: New fears for Carole
In her fight to shut down the lucrative exotic cat trade, Carole says threats from Joe Exotic were far from being her biggest concern.
In fifteen years, she argues that the two of them have never even had a conversation, describing him as “just one of dozens of these bad guys”.
The difference between him and the others, she says was that he happened to be charismatic and therefore garnered attention.
As Carole continues to advocate for the welfare of exotic animals, she says she has fallen foul of other zoo operators, who she describes as “much more dangerous” and “much more politically connected”.
“Joe Exotic was just, he was the easiest of my detractors to catch and jail,” she argues.
“The people who I am going up against now are a whole lot scarier.
“I think they always thought Joe would succeed in killing me and they didn't have to.
“So now I think pressure is on them.”
Obscenities screamed down the phone every two minutes
The Tiger King documentary resulted in a host of new detractors coming out of the woodwork, especially after accusations were aired that Carole killed her former husband, Don Lewis.
For three months after the series was released, she says her phone would ring every two minutes and when she picked up she’d receive a torrent of abuse from the caller.
Having fought against people she describes as “unscrupulous”, the calls were not a surprise to her, but for her current husband, Howard Baskin, the calls were heartbreaking.
“Howard is much more sensitive to this sort of thing than I am,” she says.
“I think it bothers him more that people have been so hateful and threatening toward me, because he feels like he has to step in and intervene.”
Carole believes the experiences were so affecting that her husband lost faith in the human race.
“(Callers were) screaming obscenities at me saying that I killed my husband and I should turn myself in,” she says.
“And it's like, you watched a TV show, and this is what you came away with from that.
“So it's been really hard on the entire family, but I think probably hardest on him.”
Tiger King a missed opportunity to expose wildlife crime, says star
In signing on to be part of the Tiger King series, Carole says she believed it would be the “Blackfish of big cat documentaries”, a film which raised awareness about the cruelty of keeping orcas in captivity.
Instead, she says the show focused on the lives of the zoo operators and not the plight of the animals, and this she characterises as a “betrayal”.
Carole argues that an opportunity was missed to show how pervasive the exotic trade is in the United States, and how it is contributing to the extinction of wild animals.
Despite her problems with the documentary, she trusts that everything happens for a reason.
She believes the series indirectly raised awareness about the big cat industry, particularly those which offer experiences to interact with cubs, and for that she is thankful.
“(Cub petting experiences are) never a good thing for the cats, because the only way that they can use those cubs is to take them away from their mothers at birth,” she said.
“People did see that in Tiger King, they saw that guy with the hook that was dragging that newborn baby right away from its mother while she was still giving birth and forcing it through the fence.
“That really upset a lot of people. They didn't believe that kind of thing happened before.”
‘Their need to kill me’ could end with wildlife ban
Notwithstanding the danger that advocating for big cats brings, Carole remains determined to improve animal welfare laws across the United States.
It’s not lost on her that her own life would likely improve too if there was a ban on the exploitation of exotic animals.
“The good news is that once we have a federal ban on the thing that drives their need to kill me, then I think there's no reason for them to kill me at that point,” she tells us.
“It will be a much safer world for me anyway, and definitely for the cats.”
Carole says her biggest stressor isn’t the men who threaten her life, but running out of time to save wild big cats.
Without “serious action” to save them, she fears tigers could be extinct in the wild in the next five years.
While some zoos promote a conservation message, animals privately bred for petting do not find themselves released back into the wild as they are genetically impure and unable to fend for themselves.
Instead the animals are forced into breeding programs, exhibited, or “discarded” the animals once they reach 12 to 16 weeks of age and are no longer safe for public interaction.
“(It) creates a legal smokescreen for the illegal trafficking in their parts,” Carole argues.
“Because if you get caught with a tiger skin rug, you just say, well, that was my pet tiger and nobody does anything about it.
“If there's a law banning you from having a tiger of any kind live or dead, then you can't have that tiger skin rug.”
Pain of losing beloved big cats in care
Many of the animals Carole and her 88 volunteers care for have been severely neglected by their previous owners and require ongoing medical care.
Despite being able to give them a home at her sanctuary, it troubles her to see proud animals like lions and tigers confined and reliant on human care.
“So many of them have come from such horrible situations, and you give the best that you can,” she says.
“But it's still life in a cage, and they don't belong in cages.”
Wild cats can live upwards of 20 years in at Big Cat Rescue, but like pets, they eventually become infirm and hard decisions must be made to say goodbye.
Carole becomes teary as she describes an ageing serval, that her daughter is particularly fond of, who is nearing the end of his life.
“This is the discussion we always have when it is their time to go,” she says.
“I call it their get out of jail free card.
“But that doesn't lessen the the pain of losing these animals who have become so dear to each of us here.”
Virtual zoos an alternative to caging animals
While exotic animal petting zoos do not exist in the same way in Australia as they do in the United States, Carole warns travellers to be wary when overseas.
She sees understanding growing across her home country that big cats should not be kept as pets, killed for their fur, or made to perform in circuses, but describes zoos as an ongoing blindspot for many.
“I've heard so many people who were otherwise really decent people tell me that they felt like zoos were the only way they could teach their kids to care about wild animals, so that they would protect them in the wild,” she says.
“And yet, the message that you're teaching your child is that it's okay to take away others freedoms if it suits your purpose.
“And that's just the worst message we could be teaching our children.”
Carole believes a better alternative to interacting with animals in cages is through the experience of augmented and virtual reality.
This alternative to zoos is something Carole has invested in, helping to develop a game in which young people can witness tigers in the wild.
“We don't have to have these cats in cages in order to teach children,” she says
“A kid would much rather strap on a headset, and be transported into a ‘gamified’ situation where they can learn all about these animals in an environment.
“It's educational. It's exciting. It's thrilling.”
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