Carole Baskin Warned Me About Joe Exotic. Here’s What ‘Tiger King’ Missed

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Credit: Dave Stokes

When I interviewed Carole Baskin for an article years ago, she made clear how she felt about people in the world of big cats. Public reporting of tigers was “based on the honor system,” she told me, “and we’re dealing with a lot of people that are really dishonorable.” She went into detail about one of these people: Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic.

Having reported on captive tigers in the United States, I watched “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” on Netflix with great interest. I had followed the feud between Baskin and Maldonado-Passage for more than five years. But the documentary series, while entertaining, failed to explore a crucial detail that helped cause the chasm between people such as Maldonado-Passage and Baskin — and, by the former’s own admission, contributed to his demise.

That detail is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule. Until recently, the agency required certain permits only for pure-breed tigers. This meant that generic tigers, or cross-breed or unknown-breed tigers, were exempt. And after decades of off-the-books cross-breeding, most captive tigers in the U.S. were generic.

As I wrote for Smithsonian in 2015, wildlife experts estimate there are between 5,000 and 10,000 captive tigers in the U.S., more than the amount in the wild anywhere. States have a patchwork of rules and regulations for private tiger ownership. Twenty-one states prohibit it, four have no restrictions, and the rest generally require permits, according to one count. At the federal level, no laws prohibit or regulate private tiger ownership, but facilities need U.S. Department of Agriculture licenses and to meet Animal Welfare Act standards to use the animals for commercial purposes.

I approached Baskin in 2014 to talk about the lack of regulations. We spoke at length about her Tampa, Florida nonprofit, Big Cat Rescue. Baskin said she wanted to end the problem of captive tiger breeding rather than continue rescuing the tigers people no longer wanted. “Our primary goal is to stop it at its root,” she said. “We can’t rescue our way out of it.”

Then she gave an example: “There’s situations right now, like there’s a place in Oklahoma that has, he claims, 115 tigers. His census says something like 90 tigers. We have chased him through court and bankruptcy court and gotten a million dollar judgment against him. And he’s a facility that we think will go under, but there’s no way we can take in that many big cats because that will bankrupt us and that will prohibit us from being able to do the very thing we need to do to stop the abuse.”

She was talking about Maldonado-Passage. Later, she spoke about Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who also appears in “Tiger King.” She questioned what Antle did with his tiger cubs after they became too old for petting. (A representative for Antle didn’t respond to my request for comment.)

Big-cat people disliked Baskin because she advocated for legislation and policy changes that would make life harder for them. Deborah Warrick from St. Augustine Wild Reserve in Florida put it to me this way at the time, referring to Baskin and her ilk: “No one likes them in the animal community, and there’s a reason for that.”

Baskin’s allegations about Maldonado-Passage and Antle didn’t make it into my article. But I learned more about the tiger-world drama when I published the story and discussed it on MSNBC’s Shift. The article received hundreds of comments, and angry big-cat people sent me nasty emails. They criticized me for talking to Baskin and pointed out that her former husband mysteriously disappeared. One person, “Catladyjane57,” emailed me the names of two sources she said were more credible. One has since been arrested on fraud charges and a judge has banned her business from owning or possessing any more tigers. I added “tiger community infighting” to my Google Doc of stories to pursue.

By early 2018, I had returned to the idea. I learned that the Humane Society of the U.S. had investigated Maldonado-Passage and his exotic animal park. “We had an undercover investigator. There is immense concern about the treatment of animals there,” the Humane Society’s Anna Frostic told me back then. “It’s definitely our opinion that his activities with respect to tigers violate the ESA,” the Endangered Species Act. Late last month, the Humane Society posted a video from its investigation.

Here’s where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule about pure-breed tigers is important: In 2016, the agency closed the loophole for generic tigers. Owners like Maldonado-Passage faced new restrictions. Among others, killing a generic tiger now violated the ESA. If you’ve seen “Tiger King,” you know what happened next to Maldonado-Passage. The series doesn’t explore the rule change, but it was central to his demise.

He has said so himself. On March 17, he filed a lawsuit against federal agencies and other defendants. The suit claims that the government closed the generic tiger loophole to harm him. He is seeking almost $94 million.

He writes in the complaint that he spent 18 years working on the “inter-breeding and cross-breeding of tigers and lions in order to create species such as Ligers, LiLigers, Taligers, and Tigons.” These animals do not need federal protection, the suit claims, because “a generic tiger is not a species and has no conservation” value. He argues that authorities targeted him because he “is an openly gay male with the largest collection of generic tigers and cross breeds.” And he alleges that Baskin’s organization pressured the government to make the change.

None of the defendants have responded in court. The judge has recommended a dismissal of the claims, and Maldonado-Passage has until May 28 to object.

I tried to reconnect with Baskin in recent weeks. In that time, “Saturday Night Live” featured an impersonation of her, and TikTok users have included a song about her in more than 2.3 million videos. Susan Bass, a Big Cat Rescue spokesperson whose name appears in Maldonado-Passage’s lawsuit, said Baskin isn’t doing interviews.

Journalist covering politics, Justice Dept., Russia probes, 2020. Previously at Newsweek and Smithsonian Magazine.

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