Tyrrell: Carole Baskin is not a villain


Columnist Eileen Tyrrell writes about “Tiger King” and how Carole Baskin should not be the one portrayed as the villain in the show. 

Eileen Tyrrell

If you haven’t seen “Tiger King” yet, you’ve definitely seen the memes. Netflix released the docuseries right as quarantine was beginning for millions of Americans — in other words, the perfect time for it to become a national obsession. And rightfully so; the show documents the surreal world of exotic animal ownership in America, specifically big cats and the key players that dominate the industry. It is a roller coaster ride of a show so wild that it makes Miami drug lord Mario Tabraue look like one of the most normal people in its colorful cast of characters.

Despite widespread enthusiasm for the show, “Tiger King” has also been targeted for a hefty amount of criticism since its release in March. Critics claim that the docuseries focuses on sensationalism rather than real journalism and also loses sight of the real issue — the animals themselves and the abuse they suffer. (One scene that was particularly hard to watch showed Joe Exotic pulling newborn tiger cubs away from their mother with a hook — and then the show never touches on the horribleness of that moment again.) I binged the whole show over the span of two days, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, I too found myself questioning some of the dubious ethics reflected in the show. But the biggest issue I keep coming back to also centers on the show’s (arguably) funniest subplot: Did Carole Baskin feed her husband to the tigers? And my question: Out of all the bizarre people on this show, why is CAROLE painted as the villian?

A brief rundown of the main characters in “Tiger King,” for anyone who needs a recap: First, we have Joe Maldonado-Passage himself, also known as Joe Exotic. I’m struggling to figure out how to sum up the man with one sentence but I think we’ll go with “polygamous gay tiger breeder who used to run a zoo in Oklahoma, star in his own country music videos, made an almost-successful bid for governor of Oklahoma, preyed on meth-addicted younger men and is also currently serving 22 years in prison for plotting to assasinate his rival, Carole Baskin.” Whew, that was a mouthful. Next we have Carole Baskin herself, a self-proclaimed animal rights activist who runs the nonprofit Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. Her fatal sin (aside from the flower crowns and lurid animal-print clothing she favors) is the mysterious disappearance of her first husband in 1997, which many people, including Joe Exotic, think she orchestrated.

In fact, the full theory is that she killed her husband and then disposed of his body by feeding it to her tigers. The third major player in the high-stakes world of big cat ownership is Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the polygamous director of Myrtle Beach Safari, who has not only accumulated over 35 U.S. Department of Agriculture violations for mistreating animals, but has also been accused of sexual and psychological manipulation of his all-female staff (many of whom have become his wives). 

Aside from the three tentpole characters, we also meet Exotic’s ex-husband John Finlay, who was married in a throuple with Exotic and the deceased Travis Maldonado in 2014. It is alleged later on in the show that neither man was actually gay, and that both were manipulated into the relationship by Exotic, who showered them with gifts and preyed on their meth addictions. After Maldonado’s death comes Dillon Passage, Exotic’s current husband, who is 35 years younger than Exotic. Then we have Jeff Lowe, the misogynistic current owner of Exotic’s zoo who has been accused of fraud, animal abuse and domestic abuse, among other things. And, of course, I can’t forget Mario Tabraue, convicted felon, who sold cocaine to fund his private zoo.

Here’s what I can’t stop thinking about: out of all these people, how did Baskin get painted as the villian? 

Sure, she’s self-righteous in a way that comes off as hypocritical when we see the less-than-ideal conditions tigers are kept in at Big Cat Rescue; she’s had three husbands and yes, her second one went missing in 1997 after he attempted to file a restraining order against her. It looks fishy. I’m not condoning murder. But for a show that contains an awful lot of manipulative, abusive and downright criminal people, it seems a little too predictable that the lone woman in this motley crew is painted as the villian.

Really, I think it comes down to the fact that Baskin is off-putting and just sort of “unlikable” in that vague way that we describe women who won’t fit into the box society provides for them. She isn’t a mother. Her husband is clearly whipped for her, she has a lot of power in the show and she pretty much does what she wants. So, our hatred for her grows as the show progresses. 

At least, that’s what is clearly supposed to happen, as we’re repeatedly exposed to clips of almost every man in “Tiger King” demonizing Baskin with expletives, misogyny and at one point, actually shooting a blow-up doll meant to represent her. Joe Exotic — sure, we can forgive him. He’s weird but he’s vulnerable and therefore likable, despite having manipulated younger men with drug addictions and clearly abusing the animals he was supposed to take care of. But “that b**ch Carole Baskin?” She’s just evil. Never mind the fact that she was only 19 when the 40-year-old man she supposedly murdered picked her up on the side of the road. Or that all of the “evidence” against her is purely circumstantial.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. The allure of “Tiger King” lies in its easy sensationalism, so why shouldn’t the producers also go for the misogynistic trope laid right at their feet? Baskin must be a central character of the docuseries because attempting to assassinate her is the main reason why Exotic is in jail right now. But it’s one thing to include her and her lurid past and another thing entirely to demonize her. The whole third episode of the show is devoted to laying out the evidence that she killed her husband and then fed him to the cats. Meanwhile, convicted Miami drug lord Mario Tabraue is portrayed as almost normal, despite significantly more evidence that he killed his ex-partner than that Baskin killed hers.

It seems that the morality the filmmakers apply to the world of “Tiger King” is, at best, flawed and ambiguous. At worst, it is intentionally misogynistic. I was very entertained by this show, but I’m tired of seeing the same sort of lazy tropes applied over and over in film, and even in a so-called “journalistic” endeavor such as “Tiger King.” 

There are a lot of villains in “Tiger King.” Carole Baskin should not be one of them.