arly on in Joe Exotic: Tigers, Lies and Cover-Up – a new documentary that investigates the mysterious 1997 disappearance of Carole Baskin’s ex-husband Don Lewis – notorious Oklahoma zoo owner Exotic exclaims: “Carole ground him up and fed him to the tigers.” What’s new? We’ve heard it all before.
The rivalry between Exotic and big-cat activist Baskin was the focal point of the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness in March. As part of Exotic’s smear campaign against the animal rights campaigner, who tried to get his zoo shut down for animal abuse, he even released a music video – “Here Kitty Kitty” – in which a Baskin lookalike feeds human body parts to a tiger.
The accusation became one of the most talked-about aspects of the show, and the internet was taken over by conspiracy theories – despite Baskin vehemently denying any involvement in the multi-millionaire's disappearance. But while Baskin was vilified and became the target of death threats, Exotic – who is now in prison serving 22 years for a murder-for-hire plot against Baskin and 17 counts of animal abuse – comes out of the documentary idolised as a wacky oddball. Is it the fault of a sexist society or the Netflix show itself?
The new three-part series on Discovery+ only fuels suspicions that Baskin killed her ex-husband. But it’s not an objective investigation: it’s part of a witch-hunt. Baskin’s not even a suspect, according to police. So why is she the target of so much hate? Why are so many people convinced she killed her ex-husband?
Everybody loves a cold case – that’s part of its fascination – and retired cop Jim Rathmann from Florida, the lead investigator on Discovery+’s documentary, is no exception. He has jumped on the Tiger King bandwagon to offer his services “for free” and has joined “Team Tiger” – which includes Exotic’s legal team – who are pushing to overturn Exotic’s murder-for-hire conviction. Solving Lewis’s disappearance, they say, is a crucial link; they believe he was set up by Baskin.
Joe Exotic came out of the ‘Tiger King’ documentary on Netflix idolised as a wacky oddball
Rathmann, who once worked for the US Secret Service protecting Barack Obama, gets a handwriting expert to confirm old evidence that Lewis’s will is a forgery; raises suspicions over why Baskin gave Lewis’s handyman Kenny Farr “a total of nine” lucrative property transfers; and searches the water by Lewis’s Florida lake house for his body and an industrial-sized meat grinder.
None of his sleuth work comes to any satisfying conclusion, despite cadaver dogs alerting to human remains in the lake. Rathmann notifies the sheriff’s office, who put divers in the water, but the water is “so murky”, he says, that they need more advanced equipment to search the lake.
It isn’t ruled out that Baskin fed her husband to the tigers, but Rathmann notes that “you have to keep in mind they had all those volunteer workers on Wildlife on Easy Street [now called Big Cat Rescue]. So to have disposed of the human remains and then feed her husband to the tigers with all those people around would have been quite difficult. So if you want a little more discretion, you go to the lake house where nobody is going to be looking for you.”
Rathmann admits Baskin came out of the Tiger King documentary “in a bad light” but claims her behaviour “is very suspicious” and “people want answers”.
“And in all fairness,” he adds, “she could have a reason why she did these things but until she comes out and answers them, people are going to have their doubts. Unfortunately, a lot of hatred will go in her direction until they got those answers.”
Rathmann believes the obsession with Baskin is due to the Tiger King documentary coming out while the world was in lockdown due to Covid-19. “It was the perfect storm,” he says. “All of a sudden, this docuseries comes out, and it is a train wreck – but once you start watching it, you can’t stop. So everybody became fascinated with what’s going on. It’s no secret it has the craziest story, but when the docuseries touched on the Don Lewis case, it fed everybody’s interest: what actually happened with Carole Baskin’s missing husband?”
Baskin claims she only agreed to be interviewed for the Netflix documentary under the premise that it would lift the lid on the world of big cat animal exploitation. So what a shock for her to then be branded a killer. Why has this eccentric, feminine, floaty animal activist been framed as the villain? Tiger King producers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin defended their hit Netflix show from Baskin’s suggestion that it was “salacious and sensational” and that she was tricked into it, saying she “openly talked” about her life, including the case of her missing ex-husband.
Chaiklin added: "With any project that goes on for five years, things evolve and change, and we followed it as any good storyteller does. We could have never known when we started this project that it was going to land where it did.”
She even went as far as to say a few months later that the stars of Tiger King should “self reflect” instead of “lash out” over the show. But isn't it interesting that Exotic was, as Goode pointed out, “over the moon” with the documentary?
Would Baskin have been such an object of ridicule and fascination if she were a man? Has she fallen victim to the sexist "gold-digger" trope because her husband was rich? Is her hyper-femininity what makes her a laughing stock, because people associate femininity with weakness?
Many people believe unsubstantiated claims that Baskin who runs Big Cat Rescue in Florida fed her ex-husband Don Lewis to tigers after he vanished in 1997
It’s likely all this plays a part in the hate, mockery, and abuse Baskin has suffered. It’s also pure entertainment. What's worse is that viewers revel in Exotic’s misogyny. Tiger King memes about her feeding her ex to the tigers are credited with getting people through Covid-19 lockdown and social media is flooded with people using Exotic’s catchphrase “that bitch Carole Baskin”. The hunt – largely by men – to catch Baskin and prove her guilt goes on.
Exotic, meanwhile, believes Trump will pardon his murder-for-hire conviction. Though there's only a few months left of Trump's presidency, Exotic has even prepared a limo in celebration. Anything is possible – but now an end to Covid might be on its way in the shape of a vaccine, please can we stop fixating on Baskin?