Carole Baskin is easy to spot in the wild.
On Friday morning, as she rolled her cheetah-print luggage through the lobby of a D.C. hotel, Baskin appeared at ease, wearing cheetah-print pants, a cheetah-print blouse with bursts of red poppies, and shoes with calico cats printed on the front, her long blond hair framing a tiger-striped mask.
Her feline-casual attire was more than appropriate for the morning agenda. Her team—made up of her husband, Howard Baskin, and their lobbyist, Jason Osborne—were getting ready to make a stop on the Hill to thank a Republican congressman for supporting The Big Cats Public Safety Act, a bill that would effectively end private ownership of big cats: lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars (oh my?), and variations thereon.
“We have 191 cosponsors in the House, currently 24 in the Senate,” Baskin said. “We’ve never been this early in getting the Senate launched and so many cosponsors on the bill.”
Sitting across from Baskin talking about the particulars of her lobbying strategy was certainly surreal given the vindictive, possibly nefarious, image conveyed by the hit series Tiger King.
But perched in a leather chair, talking about their weekly calls with stakeholders and the years of pushing lawmakers on this and other animal rights policies, Baskin seemed very much at home in a very different swamp.
The lobbying effort from Baskin and other advocates of the bill was partially chronicled in The Conservation Game, a new documentary about how big cats used on television as cubs often end up in exploitative and abusive situations. Baskin and other conservationists came to D.C. to promote the release of the film.
The bill, passed in the House 272-114 with a wide bipartisan margin, stalled in the Senate, in part, the documentary posits, because of lobbying from the Columbus Zoo and their main spokesman, now-retired Jack Hanna, a TV personality and zoo advocate who left his leadership role at the zoo earlier this year.
But now, there’s renewed hope for the legislation. In April 2021, the Columbus Zoo announced its support for the bill.
Osborne, the Republican lobbyist and Trump 2016 veteran hired by Big Cat Rescue—the Baskins’ Tampa-based animal sanctuary—said there were many reasons to be optimistic that this Congress will get the bill to President Joe Biden’s desk. Law enforcement, which usually ends up having to deal with escaped pet jungle cats, has joined the lobbying coalition and has been a powerful tool in attracting GOP members to the cause.
“Everybody loves their sheriff,” Osborne said. “Sheriffs come in and tell stories about being called on a welfare check… and they get there and there’s a tiger in the basement.”
In The Conservation Game, Baskin is seen prowling the halls of Congress in relative anonymity with other activists. But the footage was taken before her passion for big cats, as well as her feud with the now-imprisoned former zoo owner Joe Exotic turned her into a Netflix star. Now, while the strategy to get the bill signed into law is the same—namely, get as many Republicans signed on as possible—the meetings are a bit different.
During her Hill session on Friday, for example, Baskin stopped by the office of Alabama Republican Rep. Barry Moore to take a picture with his daughter.
“This meeting is happening because his daughter is a huge fan of Carole’s,” Osborne said, mentioning that she was the one who brought the bill to the attention of her lawmaker father.
(Moore’s spokesman said the congressman’s legislative staff flagged the bill, but confirmed his daughter did take a photo with Baskin.)
“Whatever it takes, we’ll get this bill passed,” Baskin said with a laugh.
The attention to their cause, Baskin said, is one of the few upsides to the fame from the Tiger King docuseries, which explored the bizarre world of backyard zoos and the people who keep them. The series, among other things, implies Baskin disappeared her second husband, Don Lewis, in the belly of tigers—an allegation she denies and has never been linked to or charged with by law enforcement. Exotic, the antihero of the series, is currently serving 22 years in prison for hiring someone to kill Baskin.
Over the course of last year, Baskin’s treatment of her staff and unpaid volunteers have also come under criticism. The same day The Big Cats Public Safety Act passed the House, Baskin’s sanctuary made headlines after a volunteer nearly had her arm bitten off by a tiger.
The Baskins maintain they were misled by the directors of the series, who told them they were making a “Blackfish of big cats”—a reference to the documentary that exposed the dangers of keeping orcas in captivity. Instead, Howard Baskin said, the backwoods tale filled with thinly veiled allegations of murder and animal abuse turned their lives upside down.
Tiger King’s producers have pushed back publicly against these characterizations.
“Look, the first three months were awful, as all of the hate mail came,” Howard Baskin said. But he added that, if you look at the last year, from about June or July of 2020 to now, “everything has been up for us.”
For Carole Baskin, the infamy caused her to step back from advocacy briefly, at times at the request of other activists.
“Personally, you know, I used to be able to go with the groups and talk to the representatives, and I’ve pretty much been asked not to do that in the past year, because I just suck all the air out of the room or they really want are selfies or they want to talk about Tiger King and they don’t want to talk about what’s important,” she said. “I haven’t been partially visible for the last year because of the negative impact of Tiger King.”
It was around the time of her (truly unfortunate) stint on Dancing With the Stars, she said, that she felt like she could edge back into the advocacy space.
“It took about six months. It was probably after Dancing With the Stars, people saw that I wasn’t this evil villain I was cast to be, and then [thought] maybe we shouldn’t hear what she has to say,” she said, joking that her inability to dance must have been endearing.
Her husband added that, as painful as the “betrayal” was by the Tiger King producers, turning Carole into a celebrity had been a big plus for their mission. “It’s given Carole a platform,” he said.