"Nearly everyone on Tiger King is terrible," Princess Weekes writes at The Mary Sue, before going on to ponder why so many people online seem to consider Carole Baskin of Florida the "worst."
Is it because of the docuseries' focus on Joseph "Joe Exotic" Maldonado-Passage, the mullet-sporting, self-aggrandizing zoo owner who ultimately winds up behind bars for a murder-for-hire plot targeting Baskin? Is it because people believe the show's implications that Baskin may have been responsible for the mysterious disappearance of her millionaire husband? Is it just because Baskin is "weird, slightly unsettling, and a bit of a hypocrite," as Weekes writes?
By all accounts, the hit Netflix series had its genesis in a genuine attempt to film an exposé about big cat owners and the weird, interconnected world they seem to inhabit. But when you're filming a documentary about zoo owners and a murder-for-hire plot lands in your lap, you run with it. So the docuseries morphed into the story of the feud between Baskin and Joe Exotic. Baskin runs a nonprofit big cat sanctuary in Florida, and makes it her personal mission to end the captivity of big cats - which means shutting down private zoos like Joe's.
Baskin claims that Joe was just one of many big cat breeders she was trying to bring down, but for Joe, the feud became personal. He took to attacking Baskin regularly on his internet show, to the point of staging mock executions. Finally, he went to jail, partly on charges that he hired a hitman to take the life of Carole Baskin. While the series spends most of its time with Joe, there's plenty of airtime devoted to other breeders and to Baskin, including a conspiracy theory that she may have been responsible for the death of her millionaire husband and even fed him to the tigers.
But since the documentary spends so much time on Joe's point of view, and because it has been so easy for audiences to dislike Baskin, we thought it would be a good idea to shed light on some of the things that the series downplayed - or left out entirely - about her story, the disappearance of her husband, and her feud with the self-styled "Tiger King."
The Series Treats Baskin And 'Joe Exotic' As Equals - But Were They?
"The show’s treatment of Baskin is where it indulges in its most egregious displays of false equivalence," Sophie Gilbert writes for The Atlantic, calling the show "a moral failure."
Throughout the series, interviewees make the argument that Joe and Carole are basically the same. "In my opinion," reality TV producer Rick Kirkham says near the end of the first episode, "Carole Baskin was as bad as Joe. They were both taking advantage of exotic animals to make money."
The people in Joe's orbit make it a point of repeatedly comparing the two throughout the series, claiming that Joe and Carole were "obsessed" with one another. But Baskin doesn't see it that way, characterizing Joe to Vanity Fair as "just one of about a dozen of these bad guys that I was exposing online."
Whatever their similarities may be, there's one extremely important difference between Carole Baskin and Joe Maldonado-Passage: We never see her simulating his death on video, or mailing him poisonous snakes, and she's not currently in jail for taking out a contract on his life. So, the tables don't seem exactly even.
She Maintains The Beef With Maldonado-Passage Is All About The Animals
"I think for Joe, [the feud] was probably very personal," Carole Baskin told Vanity Fair, "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." However, for Baskin, the beef was simply part of her ongoing work to end the private ownership of big cats and "breeding tigers to use as pay-to-play props."
"He wasn't a big part of my life in any way," Baskin said. For her, the dispute was simply about a clash of ideologies, nothing personal. "I live, eat, and breathe ending the captivity of big cats," she says in the series. Joe Exotic was, she maintains, just another of the many private zoo owners she clashed with as part of that mission.
Baskin Thought She was Participating In An Advocacy Documentary
"Their pitch was that what they were trying to do was create the Blackfish of the cat industry," Baskin told Vanity Fair, referring to the 2013 documentary that helped put an end to orca shows at SeaWorld.
The fact that filmmaker Eric Goode was a conservationist himself and founder of the Turtle Conservancy helped to lend the idea some merit, and Baskin ended up working with Goode and his co-director Rebecca Chaiklin for approximately five years.
Before having seen the final show, Baskin said that she expected a lot of "salacious storylines," but if the series also conveyed a crucial message, it would be worth it. "I think the most important thing is that everybody who pays to pet a cub or have an interaction with a big cat," she told Vanity Fair, "is enabling all of this criminal activity that they're seeing in this documentary."
All The Evidence Against Her Is Very Circumstantial
"We don't have any type of evidence, not one piece, that suggests that he was killed," Hillborough County sheriff Chad Chronister told The New York Times about the disappearance of Carole Baskin's second husband, eccentric millionaire Don Lewis.
The speculation that Lewis's disappearance in 1997 was the result of Carole Baskin feeding him to the tigers drives much of the true crime salaciousness of Tiger King - a component that undeniably helps to lend the show its must-watch quality, since the murder-for-hire plot doesn't even get underway until the series is nearly over.
There's plenty of speculation in the show, including from Lewis's first wife and daughters, who claim that they're scared of Baskin and that she had the most to gain if "something happened" to Lewis. However, even in the midst of these allegations, John Marsicano, identified as the "lead homicide detective" in the series, points out, "There is absolutely no physical evidence at this point in time that would point at one particular individual."