A defense of Carole Baskin: ‘Tiger King’ offers drama, intrigue to College students during quarantine

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GRAPHIC BY SAUMYA SHARMAN / THE FLAT HAT

As College of William and Mary students find themselves scattered around the nation and the world due to the College’s sudden closure last month, it seems that we are all facing different struggles.

However, one coping mechanism that we share is binge watching our favorite television shows and movies. Of course, there is no piece of media more binge-able than Netflix’s new documentary series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness.” This seven-episode spectacular is filled to the brim with unexpected twists and turns, not to mention the unbelievably outlandish main characters. ‘Tiger King’ has provided people around the globe, including a substantial number of students at the College, with plenty of topics for discussion. What I have found troubling, however, is the increasingly common belief that Carole Baskin, the owner of the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, is somehow the villain of the series.

‘Tiger King’ has provided people around the globe, including a substantial number of students at the College, with plenty of topics for discussion.

That’s right, I am a Baskin apologist. Not only is Carole Baskin not the villain of ‘Tiger King,’ but her supposedly nefarious behavior does not even come close to the treachery of the men in the series. Baskin operates a nonprofit, volunteer-run nature preserve, while Bhagavan “Doc” Antle charges unsuspecting Myrtle Beach tourists hundreds of dollars to pet tiger cubs bred in captivity under the watchful eye of young women he entices into joining harems. Baskin provides elderly cats with large swathes of land to explore as they live out their final days in peace, while Joe Exotic shoots tigers who have outlived their profitability, hires a hitman to kill Baskin for her animal rights activism and even considers dropping grenades on Baskin’s animal enclosures — and those are just the things we can prove.

Of course, there is the issue of Baskin’s alleged murder of her ex-husband, Don Lewis. But there is nowhere near enough evidence to convict Baskin of this crime, as opposed to the plethora of evidence that led to Exotic’s convictions on murder-for-hire and animal cruelty charges. The majority of the evidence is completely circumstantial and is pushed in cockamamie theories by individuals who would have a lot to gain economically from the allegation being true, like Lewis’s ex-wife and the bombastic zookeepers whose inhumanity Baskin is trying to stop. And even if Baskin did feed her millionaire husband to her tigers, it seems odd that any students from the College would criticize her for that given how many of us, myself included, gleefully say “eat the rich” on a regular basis.

The series almost seems formulated to present Baskin as a villain. The documentarians dedicate an entire episode to the unproven allegations against her, but they barely spend 20 minutes exploring Antle’s undeniably creepy treatment of young women working at his zoo. Viewers see interviews with anyone who could possibly have anything to say about Lewis’s disappearance — including his handyman, for some reason — but only get to hear from one woman who escaped from Antle’s harem, who describes everything from roach-infested living quarters to forced breast enhancement surgery.

I’m not saying Baskin is an angel. I’m not even saying she isn’t sometimes hypocritical. I’m just pointing out that she is nowhere near the worst person appearing in ‘Tiger King.’

The series makes a point of emphasizing the legal support Baskin receives from the wildly unpopular People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but waits until halfway through the final episode to bring up Exotic’s murder of tigers. To learn more about Exotic’s animal cruelty, you would have to watch the bonus episode that was released nearly a month after the rest of the series and hosted by “Community” star Joel McHale — who, by the way, does not look very happy to be there. I guess things have really gone downhill for him since leaving Greendale. Even in this bonus episode, Rick Kirkham’s horrific story of Exotic killing a horse he promised to keep safe seems to be played for laughs.

I’m not saying Baskin is an angel. I’m not even saying she isn’t sometimes hypocritical. I’m just pointing out that she is nowhere near the worst person appearing in ‘Tiger King.’ My hope is that the members of the College community who spend their newfound free time bingeing ‘Tiger King’ realize that if they are saying something that the likes of Joe Exotic, Doc Antle and Mario Tabraue would probably agree with, maybe they should rethink their priorities.

Email Aidan White at amwhite02@email.wm.edu.