Carole Baskin, who runs a big-cat rescue in Florida, figures prominently in the new Netflix docuseries 'Tiger King'

By Laura Barcella
March 25, 2020 05:52 PM

Carole Baskin, an animal activist and big-cat lover who runs a sanctuary called the Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla., never dreamed she’d be stirring up the sorts of news headlines she is today.

But her newfound fame has less to do with her mission to save the lives of exploited exotic cats and more to do with Netflix’s popular docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, which chronicles the bitter feud between Baskin and Joseph Maldonado-Passage ( “Joe Exotic”), the now-imprisoned founder of Exotic Animal Memorial Park, a private zoo in Oklahoma that relied on several illegal practices.

Animals are, unsurprisingly, at the center of the acrimonious relationship between the two cat fanatics.

For years, Baskin, whose mission is to save big cats from cruelty and exploitation, was an outspoken critic of Maldonado-Passage, making videos about him, blogging about him, even tracking his movements and asking businesses not to work with him when he did mall tours with his big-cat menagerie.

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The reason for her contempt? Though Maldonado-Passage publicly proclaimed to love the animals in his care, he killed five of his tigers, bred them unnecessarily, sold baby lemurs and more — all in hopes of turning a profit. Baskin’s mission, on the other hand, was to protect and prolong the lives of big cats.

RELATED: Netflix Docuseries Spotlights Crimes of Joe Exotic, Zookeeper Who Tried to Have Rival Killed

Maldonado-Passage eventually tried to silence his nemesis by paying a hitman $3,000 to murder Baskin in November 2017. The hit did not go through, and Maldonado-Passage is now serving 22 years for the attempted murder plot. He was also found guilty of killing five tigers in October 2017 — a violation of the Endangered Species Act, NBC reports.

Joe Exotic
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Baskin continues to successfully run Big Cat Rescue, but says she’s haunted by some of the past traumas the Netflix series dredged up.

In a statement provided to PEOPLE, Baskin says, “A lifelong animal lover, I was immediately drawn to the possibility of exposing the misery caused by the rampant breeding of big cat cubs for exploitation and the awful lives these majestic creatures are forced to endure in roadside zoos and back yards.”

“There are no words for how disappointing it is to see that the series not only does not do any of that, but has instead chosen to be as salacious and sensational as possible to draw in viewers. As part of that, they devoted an entire segment to 23-year-old lies and innuendos suggesting I was involved in my husband Don’s 1997 disappearance.”

RELATED: Zookeeper ‘Joe Exotic’ Sentenced in Murder-for-Hire Plot to Silence Animal Activist Rival

The incident in question is the mysterious disappearance of Baskin’s husband, Don Lewis, then 60. Lewis was a self-made millionaire who helped Baskin transform their 40 acres of Florida land into the animal sanctuary it is today.

Lewis vanished one August 1997 morning, never to be seen again, though his car was found at a nearby airport. Some of his relatives speculated that Baskin may have been connected to his disappearance. In a 1998 interview with PEOPLE, the oldest of Lewis’ four children, Donna Pettis, then 42, claimed that Baskin feeding his body to big cats would be “a perfect scenario to dispose of someone. We were upset that the cops didn’t test the DNA on the meat grinder.”

Don Lewis
Netflix

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But Baskin, at the time, told PEOPLE the theory was ludicrous: “My tigers eat meat; they don’t eat people,” she said.

Two months before he vanished, as PEOPLE previously reported, Lewis filed court documents seeking a restraining order against Baskin, claiming she’d threatened to shoot him. He was not granted the injunction. In a recent open letter on her sanctuary website, Baskin claims her ex was seeking a restraining order not because he feared for his life but because he wanted to stop her from hauling away junk he’d been hoarding on their property.

In the open letter, Baskin again refuted that she had anything to do with Lewis’s vanishing, writing, “In the few years preceding his disappearance Don’s behavior was gradually showing signs of mental deterioration,” noting that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had taken up some strange behaviors, including “refusing to use the bathroom and defecating outside.”

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness began streaming on Netflix on March 20.

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