Tiger King Chose the Wrong Villain

Why does a series about animal mistreatment make an animal welfare crusader its villain?

Carole Baskin, wearing a colorful shirt, stands next to a big cat in a wire cage.
Carole Baskin in Tiger King. Netflix

Netflix’s quarantine hit Tiger King introduces audiences to a sordid menagerie of human beings. The hybrid series, a docutainment that crossbreeds the formal respectability of a long-gestating documentary with the high-octane shenanigans of the wildest reality show, catalogs the major players in America’s big cat scene, the egomaniacs and weirdos who keep, breed, and traffic wildcats in captivity. Each is ickier than the next: the former drug dealer who boasts he’s the model for Scarface and seems, compared with everyone else, pretty sanguine; the bone-chilling authoritarian who collects wild animals and women; the convicted felon who strangled his wife and uses tiger cubs to procure sex. And there’s the star of the show, Joe Exotic, aka Joe Maldonado-Passage né Schreibvogel, the outsize, gay, polygamist, gun-toting, mullet-having, fame-obsessed Tiger King, who is currently serving 22 years in jail for a murder-for-hire plot. Somehow, none of these men is the show’s villain.

That ignominy belongs to the woman Joe Exotic tried to have killed, Carole Baskin. Baskin is the proprietor of the respected nonprofit Big Cat Rescue, an organization that takes in abandoned and dangerous big cats. She has dedicated her life to keeping big cats from being bred in captivity, and lobbied Congress to pass a law forbidding the breeding and petting of tigers—not that you would know this from the show, which encourages viewers to think of Baskin’s work as ethically bogus, and to see her as another dirty big cat abuser. When it’s not doing that, it’s presenting her as the creepy lady who probably killed her husband and then financially hounded Joe Exotic until he hired someone to kill her. One of the craziest things about this crazy-ass show is the bad edit that it gives to Carole Baskin, making a murderer and a bona fide reality TV villain of one of the few participants who has not actually been convicted of anything murder-adjacent.

Tiger King chronicles Maldonado-Passage and Baskin’s long-running feud, which began when Baskin successfully halted Maldonado-Passage’s lucrative cub-petting mall tours, cutting into his profits. Maldonado-Passage then began to air his operatic grudge for Baskin on his daily web series. Although his over-the-top invective is presented as a joke, it’s hard to laugh when he stuffs dildoes into the mouth of a blowup doll labeled “Carole” and shoots it in the head. His grudge extended to protest visits to her property and a music video in which a Carole look-alike is shown feeding her dead husband to a tiger. This last charge was the core of Maldonado-Passage’s attack, the repeated allegation that Baskin killed her first husband, Don Lewis, under mysterious circumstances and got away with it. He even offered a reward for anyone who could offer evidence leading to her arrest.

The story of Don Lewis’ disappearance, which takes up the whole third episode of Tiger King, is an eerie one that involves a meet cute over a gun, adultery, forged wills, and septic tanks. The directors of the show, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, gather a number of compelling witnesses—Lewis’ children, ex-wife, secretary, and handyman, as well as the detectives on the case—who all seem to believe that Carole did it or, at the very least, that the investigation was not thorough enough. I have no idea whether Carole Baskin murdered her husband, but watching the episode it’s impossible not to think that something shady happened, even if it’s just Baskin hoarding the lion’s share of the inheritance. (That Lewis’ possibly forged will reads “In the event of my disappearance” is like a clue out of Encyclopedia Brown.) But in a series that is bursting with felons, cult leaders, polygamists, wife abusers, animal abusers, and cruel egomaniacs, it’s Baskin alone who is treated without sympathy.

To get a sense of the extent to which this is the directors’ choice, you can read the New York magazine piece about the Joe Exotic saga from last year, which almost completely skips over the rumors that Baskin murdered her husband while also taking seriously her conservation efforts—which is where the show’s bad edit of her begins. In the first episode, Joe Exotic makes the case that Carole is basically just like him: a profiteering, egomaniacal big cat fanatic, but one with a more polished scam. She too cages animals. She too makes money off those caged animals. She too gets a thrill from hanging out with such magnificent, powerful beasts.

This isn’t just Exotic’s claim; it’s the show’s. Goode, who pops up on screen in several episodes, says that he wished he’d been able to provide a Bowling for Columbine moment in the show, a moment of confrontation with all the people who keep tigers in cages for profit and pleasure, including Baskin. To him, Baskin is no better than anyone else who keeps big cats. But there is a difference between someone like Baskin, who cages the animals other people won’t and can’t keep, who is trying to stop tiger breeding and petting, and someone like Exotic, who is recklessly breeding tiger cubs in captivity. Baskin may have a twisted relationship to tigers, but it’s still not as twisted as that of the other big cat owners, who treat doing whatever they want to these animals as their American right, as if abusing tigers is protected in the Constitution.

In voiding the value of Baskin’s work, Tiger King doesn’t make her just like everyone else. It makes her worse, not an entertaining freak, but a hypocrite and an elitist. There is a class element at play here. Baskin, almost alone among the cat people, can pass as an emissary of a higher economic class and social order. She’s rich, her husband went to Harvard, and they know how lobbying works. That she would try to grind Exotic down, even after winning her trademark infringement case against him, is presented by everyone interviewed as taking things way too far. Baskin absolutely is trying to shut down Exotic’s zoo, where hundreds of wild animals are kept in cages and transported around America like expensive Amazon packages. But while the show is also theoretically opposed to the existence of Exotic’s zoo, it can’t bring itself to even tentatively take Baskin’s side or let her make the case that shutting the zoo down might be the right thing to do. With her ill-gotten dead husband’s money, she’s just trying to take out her rivals! What a bitch.

You only have to look at the show’s treatment of Exotic to see the high level of sympathy it can bring to even the most extreme scuzzbuckets but that it cannot muster for a woman whom this scuzzbucket threatened to kill multiple times. (The show is very adamant that Exotic didn’t violate any laws with his incessant harassment of Baskin on his web series, but on a human level, that’s pretty crappy of Exotic, too.) Tiger King’s position on Exotic is more or less that he is afflicted by fame, desperate to be not just larger than life, but bigger still: the right size for a reality show. Exotic has so many vile moments, but they’re also human ones. We see him in all of his outsize, variable, narcissistic, crocodile-tears, strutting, charming, insecure, self-obsessed complexity. This is the bias of so many reality shows (and it should be said, our politics): The person most desperate for our attention often comes across more sympathetically than someone more well adjusted, by which I mean camera-shy. Putting oneself on display can reveal, along with everything else, one’s humanity.

Carole Baskin, compared with Joe Exotic, is just not very good at reality TV. With Baskin, everything is happening on the inside, and it’s hard to parse. She has a strangely unemotional affect and she responds to various things with the same scoffing guffaw. It’s hard to get what feels like a genuine or new reaction out of her, and that makes her seem like she’s always lying, always coaching herself. Baskin is a goody two-shoes, her catchphrase sounds canned (“Hello, all you cats and kittens!”), she’s smug, and she plays things close to the vest. She’s not a character—she’s a zealot single-mindedly dedicated to her one cause. She’s contained and controlled and on message, all of which makes her the opposite of Exotic, who is all sloppiness, all chaos, all tawdry entertainment.

The show is not willing to give up this dialectic. The early episodes chronicle an efficient woman (if she did murder someone, she’s the only one competent enough not to have been caught or confessed on multiple cameras) getting tangled up with a deranged imp already living out his reality TV dreams. As the show goes on, the feud between Carole and Joe is held up as the central tension, even as it becomes clear that Exotic’s real enemies are the unbelievable sleazebags he mistook for his friends—noncharismatics who, unlike Baskin, don’t believe in anything. When Exotic is finally conned out of his zoo, the documentarians’ first question to him isn’t “What about that guy who just conned you out of your zoo?” It’s “What about Carole?” In the finale, Baskin and her husband are shown chomping on shrimp while Exotic talks about being jailed in a cage, the show underscoring that these rich people are blithely insensitive to Exotic’s plight. One can feel for Exotic and still grant that his imprisonment might be a shrimp kind of day for Carole Baskin.

For more discussion of Tiger King, listen to Slate’s Spoiler Special podcast on the show.