Carole Baskin wants you to forget ‘Tiger King’ and watch ‘The Conservation Game’

Hear the full conversation with Carole Baskin on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Carole Baskin (Part 1)

Hey, all you cool cats and kittens! Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, wants you to forget “Tiger King” and instead watch the new animal rights documentary, “The Conservation Game,” which just made its private D.C. premiere at the Eaton Hotel.

Just as “Blackfish” (2013) exposed animal cruelty at Sea World, director Michael Webber similarly follows retired Ohio police officer turned animal welfare activist Tim Harrison.

“I had met Tim Harrison many years ago because of the work he was doing in law enforcement to protect big cats,” Baskin told WTOP.

“He had won our Guardian Angel Award at our annual fundraiser many years ago. Through him and the work that he did in ‘The Elephant in the Living Room,’ I met Mike Webber. … I’ve known these guys forever.”

The film starts with Harrison describing how he grew up idolizing figures like Jack Hanna and Steve Irwin on late-night talk shows before learning a darker truth behind the scenes.

“[Viewers] are going to be outraged,” Baskin said. “Marlin Perkins and Jack Hanna were portrayed as conservation experts taking cute little cubs onto late-night shows. … Experts said this animal came from a particular zoo or was going to a wonderful sanctuary, but they didn’t know where they came from or where they went. Hundreds of cats are missing.”

Harrison soon recognizes their background animal handlers at shady wildlife auctions.

“He had gone to one of these awful auctions [and] saw some of the late-night faux experts buying and selling animals,” Baskin said.

“What you have to really pay attention to is not Jack Hanna, Boone Smith, Jarod Miller or Irwin on stage, look at who is bringing that cat up on stage in the background. It’s this same network of nefarious characters.”

Institutions like the Columbus Zoo were rocked by the documentary.

“They’re wearing Columbus Zoo polo shirts,” Baskin said. “Those guys didn’t work at the Columbus Zoo! Those were these backyard breeders and dealers that were going to these auctions and getting rid of the animals when they weren’t cute and cuddly anymore. … After this, the Columbus Zoo went through a big shake-up and is under new leadership.”

The zoo now supports the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which has 191 sponsors in Congress and passed last session in the House with a two-thirds bipartisan vote. It currently has 23 sponsors in the Senate, including Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who came on board last week.

“The Big Cat Public Safety Act is a bill that does two things,” Baskin said.

“It makes petting the cats illegal, because that’s what’s driving all of the breeding and discarding of the cubs. … It also phases out private ownership. People who have them can keep them, but they have to register that they have them and then they can’t buy or breed more.”

Such public awareness no doubt came after Netflix’s “Tiger King,” which left her cold.

“It was shocking because we had worked with the producers of ‘Tiger King’ for five years,” Baskin said.

“We were told it was going to be called ‘Stolen Wildlife,’ about exposing this horrible industry like ‘Blackfish.’ … ‘Tiger King’ was just a freak show. My husband and I binge watched it like everyone, because we couldn’t believe that’s what they produced.”

She, of course, repudiates the series’ insinuation that she killed her first husband, Don Lewis, who disappeared in 1997. She married her second husband Howard Baskin in 2004.

“I still get hate mail,” Baskin said. “It shocked me that they would take that kind of a tact because they didn’t have to. In order to make this an entertaining look at this industry, they had all the characters, they had all the crazy going on. I don’t think they needed to flip it on its head and make the only person who was trying to end this abuse be the villain.”

She said her first husband was bipolar and his death remains a mystery.

“There’s nothing [Joe Exotic] can say to justify what they’re doing to exotic animals, so their only way to combat me is to divert attention by saying, ‘Did you know she killed her husband and fed him to tigers?'” Baskin said.

“The media would say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is interesting,’ then they would do research, find out the truth and not publish those things.”

Either way, she immediately became a pop culture fixture.

“These two guys from the UK reached out to me saying they were from the Jimmy Fallon show,” Baskin said.

“They absolutely punked me. They had little clips of Jimmy Fallon saying questions and answers, then they would piece it in, so I thought I was talking to him. I got to talk about the issues, so I thought it was funny. It got 7 million views.”

She soon was competing on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

“They gave me such a gift,” Baskin said.

“It gave me the opportunity to talk about the issues on a national stage. … Even though I couldn’t dance a lick and they had to scratch me from the show by the third episode, they still continued to send media to me to talk about the important issues of saving cats in the wild and ending private possession.”

Portrayed by Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon?

“Wondery had done a podcast in April 2019 called ‘Joe Exotic,'” Baskin said. “NBC said they were going to be doing this show based on the Wondery podcast. … I heard it was going to be Kate McKinnon, who is an amazing talent. She’ll give me a sense of humor.”

Where are the rest of the “Tiger King” characters today?

“Joe Exotic is serving 22 years in prison for two attempts on my life, hiring two different hit men to kill me,” Baskin said.

“Doc Antle is being sued on several wildlife trafficking and animal cruelty charges. … Tim Stark was sued by the USDA and the Department of Justice. … It was easy to make the case against Joe Exotic; he was just the dumbest one.”

Would she ever support a pardon for Joe Exotic?

“I would be all in favor of him getting a pardon … if he did two things,” Baskin said.

“He needs to work with authorities to bring down the rest of these other abusers. … He could also speak out to Congress and say, ‘We need this bill to pass.’ … He’s chosen not to, which shows he hasn’t had a change of heart. Until he does, he’s right where he belongs.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Carole Baskin (Part 2)

Hear the full conversation with Carole Baskin on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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