From starting Big Cat Rescue to coming under suspicion for Don Lewis' disappearance, this is the story of Carole Baskin only hinted at in Tiger King.
Carole Baskin likely never imagined that her participation in Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness would result in her becoming a household name. But the seven-part documentary series did just that — and renewed a decades-old investigation into her missing husband, Don Lewis.
As the eccentric and outspoken owner of the Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, Baskin has seemingly made just as many enemies as she has had visitors to her popular park.
That’s because there’s a lot one could hold against Carole Baskin. She launched a crusade against big cat breeders even though she once profited off the practice herself. She engaged in an outrageous — and bizarre — war against former competitor Joe Exotic that almost ended in her own murder. Then, of course, there’s the issue of her ex-husband’s disappearance.
Indeed, Baskin is arguably one of the most intriguing enigmas to come out of Tiger King.
But who is Carole Baskin behind the scenes? Could she possibly have killed her husband, put him through a meat grinder, and fed him to the tigers as so many around her have posited?
Is the world’s most infamous cat lady actually a criminal mastermind who used floral designs and laughter to diffuse suspicion?
Carole Stairs Jones, A Teenage Runaway
Carole Baskin was born Carole Stairs Jones on June 6, 1961, on Lackland Air Force Base in Bexar County, Texas. The hopeful veterinarian had a difficult childhood.
She revealed in Tiger King that she was raped at knife-point by three men when she was 14. Coming from a highly religious home, the teen was blamed for the ordeal she suffered and so she ran away from home the following year.
The teen spent much of her time hitchhiking between Florida and Maine and sleeping under cars before returning to Florida at 17. Eventually, she got a job at a department store where she met and started a relationship with Michael Murdock — her boss.
They moved in together, had a daughter shortly after, and somehow managed to begin breeding Persian and Himalayan show cats for extra money.
Unfortunately, Murdock was abusive and routinely beat Baskin. Once more, it was time to run away. After a fight with Murdock one evening, 19-year-old Baskin dashed into the night.
An older man soon pulled up beside her and offered her a ride, which she refused. He drove off only to pull up again with a gun in his passenger seat. He gestured to it and told her that she could point it at him if she didn’t trust him. She agreed. They wound up spending the night together. His name was Don Lewis.
“I fell in love with him then and there,” Baskin later wrote in her diary.
Lewis initially lied and told Baskin that his name was Bob Martin, but he had a penchant for keeping things secret anyway. The fact that he had a wife came as much of a surprise to Baskin as the fact that Martin wasn’t his real name. Nonetheless, they both left their spouses in 1991 and got married.
The newlyweds bought their first bobcat soon after — with more than 100 to follow by the mid-1990s.
Did Carole Baskin Kill Her Husband, Don Lewis?
In 1992, Baskin and Lewis established a 40-acre ranch filled with lions, tigers, servals, and caracals called Wildlife On Easy Street in Tampa. Though Baskin’s dream of caring for animals had finally come true, the married couple began fighting over how the operation should be run.
Baskin reportedly disapproved of breeding big cats even though Lewis saw it as a business opportunity. The couple wound up breeding big cats for cash for years.
Meanwhile, Lewis, a self-made millionaire, kept his finances to himself. He also kept his purported promiscuity to himself, too. According to Lewis’s ex-wife, Gladys Lewis Clark, he planned on divorcing Baskin.
In June 1997, Lewis filed a petition for a restraining order against Baskin. He told authorities that she had threatened to shoot him if he didn’t leave their house. Though the petition was rejected, Lewis provided a copy to his secretary in case anything out of the ordinary happened to him.
A few weeks later, Lewis vanished. His car was found in a small airport parking lot, the keys inside. Though he previously espoused his love of Costa Rica — a paradise exempt of big cat breeding laws — those closest to him rejected the notion that he secretly fled there.
“He just literally vanished into thin air,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department patrol sergeant Greg Thomas. The investigators did discover that Lewis’ will had been amended so that all of his finances would go to Baskin in the event that he “disappeared.”
Baskin asserted that Lewis had been “suffering mentally,” and might have gotten lost or had a tragic accident while flying to Costa Rica. She explained that had Lewis flown under the radar to avoid detection, then crashed, no evidence of him or his plane would’ve been found.
Lewis’ attorney, Joe Fritz, refuted that the man was ever mentally unfit. A former associate of Lewis’, Wendell Williams, added that Baskin’s claims were “all bull.” He even accused her of “setting the stage for the dementia and Alzheimer’s” so his disappearance wouldn’t come as a surprise.
But there was just no hard evidence to explain Lewis’ disappearance. There was no evidence that his plane ever took off and there were no employees at the airstrip the night his car appeared there to report having seen him.
Suspicion began to mount around Baskin. It became an open rumor that Carole Baskin killed her husband. Some even claimed that she could have fed him to the tigers after putting him through a meat grinder. Baskin responded to those rumors with levity. She posted on her website that she didn’t even own a meat grinder big enough to pass a human body through.
Police have never officially named Baskin as a suspect in Lewis’ disappearance.
How Carole Baskin Met Joe Exotic
With the big cat operation now in her name, Baskin focused on expanding the enterprise. She rebranded the operation as a sanctuary, called it Big Cat Rescue, and banned petting and close encounters with the animals.
She became a full-fledged animal rights activist and routinely lobbied Washington to end the profitable breeding of big cats. In so doing, she met her third husband, Howard Baskin, who she married in 2004. This was also how she came across notorious big cat wrangler Joe Exotic.
Baskin launched a campaign against Exotic’s business, which at that time included a traveling roadshow. She organized protests against his use of cubs in his shows. Exotic responded by renaming his entire business “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment.”
A war was launched.
Baskin filed a $1 million lawsuit against Joe Exotic for trademark infringement. Exotic filled her mailbox with snakes. He posted “sagas” about Baskin that he uploaded constantly to his website. He’d routinely call Baskin a murderer, made a music video about how she killed her ex-husband, and read sketchy entries from her diary, which he’d somehow stolen.
Then, Exotic hired a toothless hitman to whack her for $5,000.
The plot never went through and now Exotic is serving a 22-year sentence for it.
Where Is Carole Baskin Now?
The Baskins have only had negative things to say about Netflix’s depiction of them.
Baskin criticized Tiger King for “being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers.”
She also bemoaned “a segment devoted to suggesting, with lies and innuendos from people who are not credible, that I had a role in the disappearance of my husband Don in 1997.”
Baskin further asserted that the series “did not care about the truth” and that she was denied the opportunity to see how she would be portrayed before the documentary was released.
Recently, Hillsborough County officials have taken to Twitter to request that anyone with any knowledge of Lewis’ disappearance come forward. “We’ll review a lot of the evidence,” said Sheriff Chronister. “I can’t even begin to describe how complicated this case was.”
Whether Baskin will face justice as a result of a viral Netflix series or continue to forge ahead unscathed remains to be seen.
After learning about the strange story of Tiger King’s Carole Baskin and whether she killed her husband, read about Mario Tabraue, the wildlife keeper that makes Joe Exotic look tame. Then, learn about Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the big cat wrangler who runs his sanctuary like a cult.