While Netflix’s wildly-watchable true crime docuseries Tiger King focuses on colorful former roadside zookeeper Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, it also tells the story of sanctuary owner Carole Baskin, who, alongside her husband Howard, owns and operates Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue. Baskin and Maldonado-Passage were locked in a years-long feud that culminated in a murder-for-hire scheme, and these days Maldonado-Passage is serving a decades-long prison sentence. Here’s what you should know about Baskin’s story, and where she is now.
Who is Carole Baskin?
Carole Baskin first landed in the news in the late 1990s, after the disappearance of her second husband, Tampa millionaire Don Lewis. By the time People Magazine interviewed her about the case in 1998, she was already a major figure in the big cat world. According to the magazine, Lewis met the 19-year-old Baskin in 1981, when he called to her from his car after spotting her walking down the street in the wake a fight with her first husband. Ten years later, the two married, with Lewis leaving his wife and four children to be with Baskin.
Their cat ownership began when Lewis bought Baskin a young bobcat in the early nineties. When the family arrived at a fur farm to buy more kittens, they learned that all the cats would be killed. “We couldn’t just pick out six and leave 50 to die,” Baskin told People in 1998. “So we bought every one.” That was the start of their sanctuary, which grew to more than 200 cats by the late nineties. To fund the business, they allowed guests to rent cabins on their property and spend the night with big cats as their roommates.
Together, they ran their sanctuary, then known as Wildlife on Easy Street, until Lewis, then 60-years-old, vanished on August 18, 1997. Though police mounted an investigation and Baskin hired a private detective, little evidence turned up other than Lewis’s van, which was found at a private airport.
He was an amateur pilot fond of making solo trips to Costa Rica, and a known eccentric—despite having made millions in trucking and real estate, he was known to scrounge in garbage bins for food. The documentary delves into the mysterious circumstances of Lewis, who was officially declared to be dead in 2002.
Where is Baskin now?
Over time, Wildlife on Easy Street evolved—she stopped breeding cats and allowing visitors to interact with them, and renamed the facility Big Cat Rescue. She married former banker Howard Baskin, and the two work with organizations like PETA in urging the end of private ownership of big cats. That’s how Baskin became embroiled in her feud with Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic. Maldonado-Passage bred big cats, including lion-tiger cross breeds that wouldn’t occur in nature, to fuel his cub petting business, condemning them to lives in small cages after they’re too big to interact with humans. Maldonado-Passage’s zoo became a target for animal rights activists including Baskins, who led mass emailing initiatives to urge malls that hosted his tiger petting events to cancel the bookings.
Their feud escalated from the realm of the absurd (Maldonado-Passage devoted an entire music video to accusing Baskin of murdering Lewis) to the truly dangerous. After first attempting to enlist one of his employees and then an undercover federal agent to kill Baskin, Maldonado-Passage was arrested. Last year, he was convicted of attempted murder for hire and animal cruelty, and in January was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Baskin and her husband still run Big Cat Rescue, and Vanity Fair caught up with her last week. “I think for Joe, [the feud] was probably very personal, because people said there wasn’t a day in his life that he wasn’t ranting and raving, and carrying on and calling out my name,” she told the magazine. “But for me, he was just one of about a dozen of these bad guys that I was exposing online.”