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San Antonio native Carole Baskin talks animal activism, presidential pardons and zombie tigers 

click to enlarge White tigers from Barkin's Big Cat Rescue served as the models for CGI zombie tigers in the movie Army of the Dead. - NETFLIX
  • Netflix
  • White tigers from Barkin's Big Cat Rescue served as the models for CGI zombie tigers in the movie Army of the Dead.

The first time Carole Baskin sat down to watch the true-crime docuseries Tiger King on Netflix over a year ago, she was shocked.

Baskin, a big-cat protection activist and a subject of the series, said she thought she’d been working with the producers for five years on a show about animal abuse. What she saw during her initial viewing was something completely different.

“We binged watched [Tiger King] like everyone else, and we could not believe that was the end result of five years of working with these people,” Baskin, 59, told the Current during a recent interview. “It was a missed opportunity to show how much tigers are suffering and how it’s causing us to lose them in the wild. Nobody got that from Tiger King. People just got entertained by a bunch of redneck hillbillies running around shooting and blowing up stuff.”

During the early months of the pandemic, Tiger King became a national phenomenon that hooked viewers on the rivalry between Baskin — CEO of the nonprofit animal sanctuary Big Cat Rescue near Tampa, Florida — against archnemesis Joe Exotic, the eccentric private zoo operator at the center of the Tiger King narrative. Exotic was sentenced to prison in 2019 for hiring someone to kill Baskin.

The film also turned Baskin into one of the most hated women in America by stirring up allegations that she killed her first husband, Don Lewis, and fed him to the tigers at her sanctuary.

During our interview, Baskin — who was born at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in 1961 — talked to us about why she would say “yes” to the series again, why she was worried that Donald Trump might pardon Exotic before he left office and what she thinks about the zombie tiger in Zack Snyder’s new film Army of the Dead.

How has Tiger King impacted your life since its release on Netflix over a year ago?

A lot of people ask if I would do it again. My husband Howard says “no” because all that hatred and vitriol and misunderstanding of who I am was directed at me. I think that was painful for him to see that happen to someone he loves. From my perspective, I would do it again because I feel like, even though it was a very tough time for the first three months because people were being so cruel, [the series] did some good. If it gets our federal bill [Big Cat Public Safety Act – H.R. 1380] to pass, which bans the private possession of big cats and cub petting, it will be worth everything we went through.

What did you think when filmmakers started asking you more about Joe?

They would ask me questions like, “Joe says you killed your husband and fed him to the tigers. What do you say to that?” I’d say, “Joe’s been saying that kind of crap for 20 years.” I’d respond to it, but I’d ask, “How is this important to the overall issue of how these animals are being treated?” [Producers] told us that Joe was only going to be a small part of [the series]. About a week before Tiger King came out, we saw the teasers and were like, “Who’s doing that show?”

Have you heard from any of the TV shows that are in development about Joe’s story? Kate McKinnon is playing you in one of them, so I’m assuming it’s a comedy.

They haven’t reached out to me, so God only knows what their story will end up being. There was nothing funny about losing my husband. That was a tragedy in our family. But as far as the rest of these people who are involved in the exotic cat industry, they’d be a pretty entertaining bunch if they weren’t so freaking scary.

Before Donald Trump left office in January, was there any part of you that believed he might pardon Joe?

You know, I wouldn’t talk about it before he was out of office, because I was so concerned that if I breathed any air into that stupid idea that it would get enough people talking about it that he would do it. But I really was scared. Anybody that’s seen the transcripts of the trial knows that Joe belongs in jail. Joe is just one of the people who has threatened to kill me all these years. I go after all these bad guys, and they’re all a lot smarter than Joe. That’s why Joe’s in jail. If he had been pardoned, it would’ve been fair game. I would’ve had a huge bullseye painted on my back.

How did you feel when you found out that one of your tigers was used as the model for the zombie tiger in Zack Snyder’s new film Army of the Dead?

We have had so many film crews come to film our cats over the years and rarely ever learn how the footage is used. This was such a delight to hear that our white tigers had been the models for zombie tigers, especially since breeding white tigers causes so many birth defects and is such a horrid practice. I hope no one ever wants to pay to see a white tiger again after seeing this zombie tiger. CGI is what we should be doing. If we want to have these magnificent animals acting on cue, use CGI. I may actually watch a zombie movie.

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