Is Carole Baskin of "Tiger King" Finally Going to Become a Suspect in Her Husband's Disappearance?

The Sheriff of Hillsborough County, Florida has indicated that he may reopen the investigation highlighted in Tiger King.

If you talk to someone who has just finished Netflix's Tiger King, the second topic they're likely to bring up—after the fact that it's all so crazy—is Carole Baskin.

Despite the fact that all the major players are variously involved in patently criminal activity—including a former drug kingpin who has admitted involvement in the dismemberment of a federal agent in 1980—Carole Baskin is the figure who has drawn the most ire.

At first blush this seems absurd. Why, when Bhagavan "Doc" Antle is (seemingly) running a polygamist cult that preys on young women, is everyone so upset at the weird cat lady who fights for animal rights and wears flower crowns? No doubt a certain sense of hypocrisy is part of the issue. While Joe and Doc may have dubiously purported to be animal lovers, they never tried to market their businesses as something other than entertainment. Carole Baskin, on the other hand, runs Big Cat Rescue, a "sanctuary" (read: zoo) that shares a lot in common with the businesses she vilifies, all while portraying herself as an animal rights hero.

Carole Baskin Netflix

But these issues are obviously complicated—what else are you supposed to do with giant animals that can't be returned to the wild? At least she isn't breeding her big cats, or euthanizing them, or making them perform. She probably deserves some benefit of the doubt, and people might be more willing to give that to her if it wasn't for the mysterious disappearance of her wealthy first husband, Don Lewis—and the open question of Carole Baskin's involvement.

To many fans of the insanity that is Tiger King, that's not really a question at all. They are as convinced as Joe Exotic himself is that Carole Baskin is directly responsible for the death of Don Lewis—even Kim Kardashian has weighed in. The documentary definitely makes a compelling case that she had the means, motive, and opportunity to kill her husband, claim his fortune for herself, and cover up the crime. Don Lewis' own daughters and ex-wife all seem to be convinced that Carole did exactly that, and yet she was never treated as a real suspect by law enforcement. With the growing attention that Tiger King has gotten, that may finally change.

On Monday morning, Chad Chronister, the sheriff of Hillsborough County in Florida, sent out a tweet asking the public for new leads into Don Lewis' disappearance. Among the hashtags Chronister included #CaroleBaskin and #BigCatRescue. The tweet has received thousands of likes and retweets, and around 500 comments—many of which simply point to Carole Baskin as the culprit. For those who haven't yet seen Tiger King, or want a refresher on the issue, here are the "leads" that the documentary lays out:

Don Lewis was a notorious philanderer who was more than 20 years Carole Baskin's senior, and some have speculated that Baskin—previously his mistress—would not accept Lewis being unfaithful to her. Several people close to him report that, prior to Lewis' disappearance, he had grown to hate Baskin and decided to leave her. At least one individual claims that Baskin kept a pistol on hand, while having confiscated Lewis' own gun. Lewis' van was left at a local airport and was returned to Carole Baskin several days before any police inspection of the vehicle was made. While Lewis had been in the process of moving to Costa Rica, it is not believed that any of the planes that he was known to fly could have gotten him there, and his plans for moving were far from complete.

Don Lewis' daughters and ex-wife Netflix

After his disappearance, Carole Baskin broke into Lewis' office to retrieve paperwork that gave her power over his estate. People close to the situation suspect that the paperwork was altered to include prominent provisions about the possibility of his disappearance—essentially unheard of in this type of document. People have argued that Baskin's access to tigers, a large meat grinder, and a septic tank would have made for easy disposal of Lewis' body.

Five years after Lewis was last seen—the minimum period of time required by law—Baskin had him declared dead and inherited his wealth as per his will—which was also among the paperwork that Baskin retrieved and (possibly) altered. Early on, his daughters and ex-wife gave interviews talking about their belief that Baskin was responsible. They claim that Baskin then threatened them into silence.

While this evidence paints a vivid picture of a potential confrontation, murder, and cover up, Baskin has her own story that is likewise compelling. According to Baskin, Lewis was not licensed to fly his planes, but he did so anyway, flying at unsafe altitudes over the Gulf of Mexico in order to avoid radar detection. She also claims that Lewis was showing early signs of senility, and would often become confused and disoriented—though others dispute this. She says that Don Lewis had disowned his daughters nearly a year before his disappearance—which explains why they weren't in his will—and that they've been predisposed to see her as the villain ever since she was "the other woman."

people with honk signs about Carole Baskin Pictured: The court of public opinionReddit

It seems unlikely that a cold case from more than 20 years ago will suddenly be cracked wide open thanks to an over-the-top Netflix documentary. More than likely, the "leads" the sheriff receives won't amount to enough to reopen the investigation in any serious way. But the court of public opinion is another matter. Tiger King is already causing Carole Baskin to receive a lot of scrutiny and harassment. In the aftermath, she has sought to refute much of the documentary's portrayal of her, while figures from her past have come forward to cast further doubt on her version of the story.

While the facts of what happened between Carole Baskin and Don Lewis in August of 1997 are likely to remain obscure, we are all entitled to an opinion—like, just for example, that she definitely, definitely did it.

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TV Reviews

Joe Exotic, "Tiger King," and the Terrifying Truth About Cat People

The new Netflix documentary is so much crazier than you can imagine

In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, John Oliver introduced the world to an eccentric write-in candidate who went by the professional alias Joe Exotic.

Joe ran a "private zoo for tigers" in Oklahoma and went through a rundown of his qualifications in clips that Oliver aired on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight: "I refuse to wear a suit … I am gay. I've had two boyfriends most of my life … I'm broke as sh*t, I have a judgment against me from some b*tch down there in Florida." With a pistol on his hip and fringe on his sleeves, Joe strutted around a tiger enclosure in a knee brace, wielding the cane he would later use to fend off a tiger attack. At the time Joe seemed like a quintessentially American character—deeply strange, but largely harmless. He was a folk hero of sorts—the kind of person who has made it his life's work to fully embrace who he is and expects the rest of the world to do the same.

Third Parties: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

The fact that he was the subject of a would-be reality show—Joe Exotic: Tiger King—made perfect sense. The fact that he was later arrested and convicted on a murder-for-hire charge betrayed the fact that he was not as harmless as he seemed. The new Netflix documentary, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, dives deep into the dark side of Joe Exotic and of big cat collectors in general—introducing viewers to a world that is far stranger than even Joe's campaign videos suggest. Through a series of alarming twists and revelations, it leaves the viewers with a lot of questions and uncertainties but one irresistible conclusion: Exotic animal collectors—and big cat specialists in particular—are frightening people. Spoilers ahead.

There are five prominent collectors who participated in interviews for the documentary, detailing their histories with exotic animals and with the people they exploit to run their "zoos." One of these collectors, Mario Tabraue, is thought to be an inspiration for Al Pacino's Tony Montana in Scarface and was involved in the murder and dismemberment of a federal agent. His drug smuggling operation in the 1970s and '80s used exotic animal smuggling (also illegal, but less harshly punished) as a cover, and it even involved cutting snakes open to stuff them with bags of coc*ine. After serving 12 years of a 100-year sentence—and allegedly cooperating with authorities in other investigations—Tabraue was released and opened the Zoological Wildlife Foundation, which is now one of Florida's premiere private zoos. Tabraue's story is perhaps the least upsetting of the five.

Mario Tabraue with his wife Maria, a tiger cub, and a dog

The other four collectors are as follows: Jeff Lowe, the circus heir and "legitimate businessman," a walking midlife crisis who would smuggle baby tigers into Las Vegas hotels inside of suitcases as bait to lure young women to his hotel room; "Doctor" Bhagavan Antle, the spiritual guru, Hollywood animal wrangler, and possible cult leader with three wives/girlfriends, who houses his overworked staff of young, attractive female interns in roach-infested horse stalls and convinces them to change their names and get plastic surgery; Carole Baskin, the woman who started out as a big cat breeder who provided animal encounters but pivoted to advocating against those practices and operating the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary—with a massive team of overworked volunteers—after the sudden disappearance of her wealthy, philandering husband; and finally, of course, Joe Exotic himself.

Joe is the working-class version of the same big cat insanity the others represent, complete with a (lip-synced) country music career. In interviews, Joe speaks of his admiration for the domineering mystic figure of "Doc" Antle, who has been accused of killing his cats when they are no longer profitable and may or may not believe that his genitals can confer enlightenment—particularly upon virgins. Joe, on the other hand, had no interest in women or in mysticism. He loved men and tigers and guns and partying, and he devoted himself with passion to all four. When he felt that life and his park was at risk of being taken away, Joe once assured a TV reporter that it would result in "a mini Waco," referring to the deadly standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidian religious sect in 1993.

Doc Antle with three tigers, his son Kody, and two of his wives

Joe's business relied largely on drug addicts, felons, and misfits whom Joe provided with a pittance, some expired meat, and what can loosely be referred to as housing in exchange for their work. If someone in the area of Wynnewood, Oklahoma was at the end of their rope, Joe would be there to offer them a fresh start...and some drugs. While many of his employees were undoubtedly saved from worse fates by Joe's intervention, Joe was never really interested in a "clean" lifestyle for himself or his staff. And when one of those desperate people whom he saved happened to be an attractive young man, Joe could provide for that young man's habits in exchange for sharing Joe's bed—regardless of their sexuality.

In Tiger King Joe openly acknowledges that he "fell in love with straight guys" and cites Wynnewood's demographics as his excuse. When one of Joe's two "husbands" (plural marriage is not legal in the US) John Finlay left him for the woman who worked at the animal park's front desk, he did so with noticeably fewer teeth than when their relationship started. Their "marriage" seems to have been largely based on smoking m*th together. Joe's other husband wasn't lucky enough to get out. Travis Maldonado was with Joe from the ages of 19 to 23 and, by all accounts, did little in that time other than get high, shoot guns, and sleep with the women at the park. He was in the offices of Joe's zoo when he accidentally shot himself in the head in 2017, playing with a gun that he believed to be unloaded. Joe was 54 at the time.

But the true insanity of Joe's story comes from his years-long feud with Carole Baskin—the woman he described in his campaign video as "some b*tch down there in Florida." In response to her many efforts to outlaw and stigmatize the practices at his and similar big cat parks—in particular the breeding and selling of big cats for up-close entertainment—Joe engaged in a campaign of harassment that generally focused on accusations of murder, hypocrisy, envy, and the sadistic slaughter of rabbits.

Carole Baskin posing with a lion at her Florida sanctuary

In daily internet broadcasts, Joe regularly insulted Carole Baskin and "the animal rights people," read from her diary, and depicted various kinds of violence against mannequins and sex dolls standing in for her. He made an entire song and accompanying music video claiming that she murdered her husband Don Lewis in 1997 (an accusation that Lewis' family finds eminently credible). But the step that wound up costing him everything was when he stole her Big Cat Rescue trademark for his own business.

The lawsuit that ensued would eventually result in a million dollar finding in favor of Baskin—a sum that Joe would never be able to pay. No doubt his eventual murder-for-hire plot was both an effort to get out from that financial burden and to enact some vengeance against Baskin—who made the continued operation of his park impossible and life much worse for the big cats that were living there. Along the way he had drained his elderly mother of her savings in order to keep on top of his legal fees.

Joe Exotic Country Music "Here Kitty Kitty"

It was around that time that Joe became concerned that his contract with Rick Kirkham—the man attempting to make a reality show out of Joe's life—offered little opportunity for Joe to profit, while opening him up to numerous legal liabilities regarding the dubious practices in his park. In March of 2015, the studio where Joe shot his Internet show was burned down in an act of arson that destroyed all of Kirkham's reality show footage along with a reptile house where seven alligator's and a crocodile were "boiled alive in a towering inferno."

Joe and the people in his life have attempted to direct suspicions toward Kirkham and toward Carole Baskin—whom they accuse of hiring Kirkham for the job. As for Joe, his defense is that he was out of town at the time and that he loves his animals too much to be involved. But those points are made suspect by his now-proven willingness to commit violent crimes by proxy and by the way he workshopped and dramatized that "towering inferno" line for a fundraising video.

Tiger King makes it clear that Joe Exotic is never above using the drama of a situation to his advantage as a performer. In episode five viewers are treated to Joe's eulogy at Travis Maldonado's funeral, which Joe turned into a stand-up performance before breaking out in (lip-synced) song.

Jeff Lowe with a liger

In 2018 Joe was convicted of two counts of murder-for-hire and of several crimes involving the treatment and sale of his cats. His beloved park now belongs to Jeff Lowe—who is in the process of re-branding and relocating. In January, Joe was finally sentenced to 22 years in prison. The story of how he got there features so many surprises and dark revelations that it would be impossible to do Tiger King justice here, but the resounding message is delivered in the first moments of episode one: "Animal people are nuts" one voice offers; and another chimes in, "The monkey people are a little bit different ... they're kind of strange. But the big cat people are backstabbing pieces of sh*t."

Whatever else you can glean from the five hours of insanity that is Tiger King, it's clear that—if you don't want to be mauled, sued, slandered, murdered, exploited, or brain-washed—you should never get involved with big cats or the kind of people who collect them. In other words: don't f*ck with cat people.