Carole Baskin insists she does not have a personal vendetta against Joe Exotic.
Never mind that he shot up effigies of her in Internet videos, tried to have her killed (on two occasions) and has long stood in opposition to her beliefs. Whatever the case, their battle — let’s at least call it that — is the centerpiece of a new seven-part Netflix docuseries, “Tiger King,” which will be available for streaming on March 20.
The splashy, mullet-haired, heavily tattooed, gun-loving Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage had long been the proprietor of a roadside zoo called Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park (often referred to as G.W. Exotic Animal Park). Located in Wynnewood, Okla., its primary draw was that it allowed visitors to pet lion and tiger cubs.
Carole and her husband Howard keep abandoned lions and tigers in their Big Cat Rescue sanctuary, located in Tampa, Fla. They insist that they did not want to break Joe — even though the lawsuit they filed against him preceded his own declaring bankruptcy and stating that he was pushed out of the zoo he founded.
They just want to curtail the public petting of cubs and the breeding that it necessitates, Howard tells The Post.
“Reporters keep referring to [the situation between Exotic and the Baskins] as a feud. But a feud is personal,” Howard says. “For us it was never a feud. Despite all of Joe’s attacks, we never responded in kind. For us, it was always about stopping the cub petting.”
Things first got testy in 2004, when a newspaper ran a story about a cub in Joe’s zoo that had been born crippled. The reporter contacted Carole for a quote about it.
“My comment,” she tells The Post, “was that they should not be breeding cubs.”
Operations like Joe’s facility, says Carole, “keep a limited number of breeding tigers. Babies are pulled as soon as they’re born and the tigers are put back to breeding. They want the cubs to not bond to the mothers but to get used to people. They drug them, they punish them, they deprive them of food. These places let you swim with tiger cubs. It’s an industry of misery.”
According to the Baskins, it is also unclear what happens to the cubs when they grow up and become too dangerous for the public to handle.
Over the next five years, Carole developed a knack for social media and gathered a following of animal lovers that numbered over 10,000. In 2009, she noticed that Joe Exotic was performing around the country. Howard claims that his performances were billed under different names, often at shopping malls. He and Carole implored their followers to send emails of protest to the malls’ managers.
The complaint letters grew to approximately 1,000 per performance. “That’s a lot,” says Howard. “Malls started canceling, and sometimes little protests would arise. We have supporters all over the country.”
Joe Exotic did not take this lightly. Over the subsequent years, things became increasingly contentious between them. At one point in 2010, Joe renamed his mobile magic show so that it appeared to have an affiliation with the Baskins’ animal reserve. A million-dollar lawsuit over the name infringement brought Joe to his knees financially, and his vendetta against Carole Baskin shifted into overdrive.
It was mostly just an annoyance until one morning in November 2017, when Carole received a phone call from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
She was told that an FBI agent was also on the line. “My initial reaction,” says Carole, “was, ‘What did I do?’ ”
As Howard remembers it, “[The agent] explained that Joe [was] actively hiring someone to kill Carole and we should take precautions.”
The two had already learned to deal with threats. But after that disturbing call, “We carried pistols and removed signage from our cars,” Howard says. “It created an eight-month period where we were literally looking over our shoulders.”
The events leading up to Joe’s unraveling are as mysterious as everything else surrounding it. “We received a call from an Oklahoma number with no voicemail [left],” says Howard. “Then we received a text to call that number if we wanted to get Joe in trouble. I gave that number to our lawyer and she gave it to law enforcement. The number went to a 20-year-long friend of Joe’s. Joe had asked him to help find somebody to kill Carole. It is unclear why the friend called us.”
The call led to the sting operation that resulted in legal action against Joe Exotic. Earlier this year, he was sentenced to serve 22 years in prison. Carole was at three of his court appearances: “Even in those controlled situations, I had to have a bodyguard looking out for me,” she says. Those were the only times she saw him in person.
Even after all of this, she insists that Joe Exotic does not occupy her thoughts in a major way.
“Joe is a minor character in my world,” Carole says. “I am always going after these people and they are always making threats to me. Joe was just one more guy.”
Howard adds that they’ve got bigger things to worry about.
“We’re going to stop the abuse of these animals and not let dangerous or crazy people get in the way of what we are doing.”