The untold truth of Carole Baskin

What did we talk about before we talked about Tiger King? The Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is taking the world by storm, thanks to its skillful storytelling and the intensity of its leading characters. The seven-part series focuses on the untold truth of Joe Exotic, former owner and operator of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, but the project ties in some other important names in the big cats club, most notably Carole Baskin.

Carole runs Big Cat Rescue in Citrus Park, Fla. and, thanks to her outspoken advocacy of big cats, she made an enemy in Joe early on. The two cat enthusiasts have what Newsweek calls "opposing views on tiger captivity." Their dynamic became so fractured that Joe reportedly paid $3,000 for a hit on Carole's life – "those charges plus counts of animal cruelty led to a 20 plus prison sentence for Joe," per Newsweek.

While the ordeal must have been legitimately terrifying for Carole, Tiger King has revealed some details about her past that also appear a little unsavory. This is the untold truth of Carole Baskin.

Carole Baskin meets a millionaire

In 1981, Carole Baskin was walking down a street barefoot in Tampa, Fla. after a fight with her then-husband when self-made millionaire Don Lewis spotted her, according to People. They spent the night together and became an item, even though Lewis was already married to a woman named Gladys, with whom he had three daughters and an adopted son. Carole brought her own daughter, Jamie, into the relationship, and together, she and Don started a new life together.

Don bought Carole a bobcat she named Windsong and, because one is never enough, the couple drove with Carole's daughter to Minnesota to buy six more bobcat kittens. But when they arrived, they realized the place was a fur farm. "The guy had 56 kittens. We couldn't just pick out six and leave 50 to die. So we bought every one," Carole said (via People).

Acquiring 50+ bobcat kittens prompted Carole and Don to learn more about the treatment of big cats throughout America. "Soon Don was going to auctions across the U.S. and bringing home every 'abused, dying, maimed cat he could find," she said, per People

Their collection grew to include more than 200 big cats of 17 different species, spawning Big Cat Rescue. According to its website, the facility is "one of the largest accredited sanctuaries in the world dedicated to abused and abandoned big cats."

Carole Baskin's husband vanished without a trace

Carole Baskin's millionaire husband, Don Lewis, vanished without a trace on Aug. 18, 1997. According to People, Don's vehicle was found at an airport about 40 miles from their home, but none of his credit cards were used after Carole reported him missing. In addition to the police investigation — which included traveling to Don's favorite spots in Costa Rica — Carole also hired a private eye, but no one was able to track down Don.

Don's disappearance was a big story. People even published an article on Carole in 1998, before she gained notoriety for her public feuds with Joe Exotic. To make matters even more suspicious, "Police did learn that two months before he vanished, Don Lewis had filed court documents seeking a domestic-violence injunction against Carole, accusing her of threatening to shoot him," reported People. Don's request for a restraining order was denied.

The unsolved mystery led to a huge feud between Don's children from his first marriage and Carole. The kids have accused Carole of forging his will and power of attorney and have expressed suspicions about her potential involvement in his disappearance.

Did Carole Baskin feed her husband to the tigers?

Carole Baskin published a blog in March 2020 criticizing the producers of Tiger King for making the story seem too salacious and for portraying her in a bad light. In the lengthy post, she also addresses rumors that she killed her husband, Don Lewis, and fed him to her tigers.

The blog post is an exciting read, with tons of TMI moments. We may never be able to forget Carole talking about Don's sex drive and his alleged extramarital affairs: "Don was a man who wanted to have sex daily. He would go to Costa Rica during the week I was having my menstrual cycle." Cool, Carole. Thanks for the info.

Carole spoke about those pesky murder accusations too, claiming Don's ex-wife and kids concocted the killer story. "As Gladys and the daughters did everything they could to make life difficult for me after Don disappeared, they spread this rumor that they thought I had ground Don up and fed him to the cats," Carole said. "And the media loved it." She noted that putting her husband through a meat grinder wasn't practical. "Meat had to first be cut into one-inch cubes ... to go through it," she explained. "The idea that a human body and skeleton could be put through it is idiotic. But the Netflix directors did not care. They just showed a bigger grinder."

Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin get into a cat fight

After Don Lewis' disappearance, Carole Baskin threw herself wholeheartedly into Big Cat Rescue and made Joe Exotic one of the targets of her activism. She accused him of mistreating and exploiting big cats for profit. 

On her website, Carole attempted to differentiate between her sanctuary and Joe's zoo: "At the sanctuary, we take in abandoned, abused, confiscated, and orphaned cats and give them a permanent home," she said. "A sanctuary does not breed, buy, sell, allow people to touch the cats, or put them through the stress of traveling offsite. It is basically a retirement home." She alleged that "Joe Exotic incessantly bred tiger cubs [so] he could make money charging people to pet and take photos with them."

With statements like these, it's not surprising Joe wasn't a fan of Carole's, and he used the mysterious circumstances surrounding Don's disappearance as ammunition against her. Joe even made a music video about Carole called "Here Kitty Kitty." It starred a woman who looked like Carole feeding raw meat to tigers from a platter with a fake human head on it.

Carole Baskin's new husband is the 'luckiest man in the world'

Carole Baskin's current husband, Howard Baskin, released a video in March 2020, responding to what he describes as "the deception that took place in the making of the Netflix Tiger King." The seemingly mild-mannered guy addresses the murder accusations against his wife and describes what it's like to be Carole's husband and a part of Big Cat Rescue. He said they've never so much as had an argument. Howard gets choked up in one moment and says, "I honestly believe that I am the luckiest man in the world."

The docuseries has certainly garnered a lot of attention. Basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal has a connection to Joe Exotic, countless memes have been spawned, and Kim Kardashian even weighed in on the whole debacle, asking her more than 64 million Twitter followers: "Do you think [Carole] killed him?" 

Big Cat Rescue actually responded to Kardashian, tweeting: "We would love for you to visit Big Cat Rescue once Covid-19 is over to meet Carole, tour our GFAS-accredited sanctuary for big cats, and learn about how you can end abusive cub petting!"

It certainly seems like Carole and Howard are putting on a strong, united front in the midst of the controversial publicity.

Where does this leave Carole Baskin now?

In the aftermath of Tiger King, it's tough to know who to believe. Joe Exotic is a controversial enough character in his own right, but is Carole Baskin really the Mother Teresa of big cats?

In a blog post, Carole heatedly criticized the producers of Tiger King, accusing them of giving her a false sense of what the docuseries would be about. She claims she was expecting something like Blackfish, a critically-acclaimed documentary examining the dark side of keeping orcas in captivity at places such as Sea World.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Tiger King co-producer Eric Goode defended the film, insisting that Carole "knew that this was not just about ... it's not a Blackfish because of the things she spoke about." Goode added, "She certainly wasn't coerced. The other thing I would say about all these people is that there was a lack of intellectual curiosity to really go and understand or even see these animals in the wild. Certainly, Carole really had no interest in seeing an animal in the wild."

What all of this means for Carole and Big Cat Sanctuary remains to be seen. In the meantime, go binge-watch Tiger King. You will not be disappointed.