*Warning: Spoilers ahead.*
If you’ve been binge-watching Netflix’s new docuseries Tiger King to pass the long hours in quarantine, you’re not alone. More than 35 million Americans watched the show within the first ten days of its release. The series explores the wild world of big cat enthusiasts. It follows Joe Exotic, a gun-toting gay polygamist who was once one of the most prominent tiger breeders in the nation. He’s also an Internet sensation, online TV show host, would-be reality star, lip-syncing country singer, one-time presidential and gubernatorial candidate, not-so-savvy businessman, and, by the series’ end, a convicted felon.
The cast of characters
As its title reveals, Tiger King isn’t about the big cats themselves. It’s about their owners – a ragtag parade of eccentric characters with checkered pasts, questionable motives and outlandish lifestyles. Everyone, it seems, has skeletons in their closets (or backyard… or septic tank…)
Joe Exotic, easily the most bizarre of the bunch, founded the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park decades ago in memory of his brother. The rural Oklahoma zoo became the hub of a stranger-than-fiction story with more spokes and subplots than anyone could have imagined, culminating in a murder-for-hire plot that landed Joe behind bars. He’s currently serving 22 years in federal prison.
If Joe is the show’s “Tiger King,” Carole Baskin – Joe’s nemesis – is its queen. The founder of Big Cat Rescue, a nonprofit sanctuary in Tampa, her mission is to shut down operations like Joe’s that profit from breeding and trafficking exotic cats. Joe’s hatred for Carole soon surpasses all bounds of sanity. He develops an unhealthy obsession with “offing” her. Over the course of the show, that thread morphs from dark fantasy to near reality.
With more twists and tangles than a redneck’s rattail, the series leaves viewers with more questions than answers. One looms large: Who killed Carole Baskin’s prior husband, Don Lewis?
Don was a multimillionaire who helped Carole start the big cat sanctuary. He vanished in August 1997. He has since been declared dead, though a body was never found. So what happened to him?
The theory: Carole killed him (and fed his body to the tigers)
The most “out there” theory – in part because it was the crux of Joe’s crusade to crucify Carole – is that she murdered Don because he was planning to divorce her and leave her penniless. Don’s ex-wife (whom he left to be with Carole) and his daughters from that marriage have made no secret of their belief that Carole killed him. Don allegedly confided in them that he was planning to divorce Carole. He urged them to stay away from her, calling her “dangerous.” One daughter publicly accused Carole not only of murdering Don, but also of putting his body through a meat grinder and feeding it to their tigers. (Joe brought this theory to life in one of his off-the-wall country music videos.)
According to a former business associate, Don was planning to divorce Carole at the time of his disappearance. He was allegedly in the midst of restructuring assets so she’d be left with nothing.
Anne McQueen, the restraining order and the power of attorney
One key detail supporting this theory is a restraining order that Don sought against Carole a few months before his disappearance. In it, he claims she threatened to kill him. The restraining order was never granted, but Don allegedly gave a copy to his trusted secretary, Anne McQueen, telling her to open it if anything ever happened to him.
Anne also claims that Don left in her possession his will and power of attorney, which named her as executor and conservator. By Anne’s telling, Carole broke into the trailer that Anne used as an office to retrieve those documents and supplant them with her own versions. The “new” versions – the ones ultimately validated in court – left Carole in charge of Don’s estate.
Curiously, the power of attorney authorized Carole to act on her husband’s behalf not only in the event of his death but also his “disappearance” – something Don’s attorney contended was highly unusual (not to mention exceedingly convenient).
The many holes in this theory
The series devotes a good deal of airtime to this theory, attempting to paint Carole as a gold-digger who would stop at nothing – even murder – to protect her beloved cat sanctuary. And, from the look of it, she did stand to benefit more than anyone else from Don’s death.
Still, the theory has one major hole: There is no evidence to back it. Only conjecture, hearsay and hurt feelings sprung from a bitter interpersonal drama.
Carole and her current husband (Howard Baskin) have outlined, in great detail, credible responses to each allegation. Anne McQueen – portrayed in the show as sweet, meek, down-to-earth and the only reliable witness with no horse in the race – was caught embezzling more than half a million dollars of property from Don’s estate. (One of Don’s former business associates, too, turns out to be less reliable than he seems in the show, having swindled Don out of tens of thousands of dollars.)
Carole denies doctoring any of Don’s estate planning documents. She repossessed the trailer that served as Anne’s office because it was property of Don’s business, she claims. The term “disappearance” was included in the power of attorney, she says, because of his frequent trips to Costa Rica. Given the drug cartels operating there at the time, the prospect of an American disappearing wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.
As for the restraining order, Carole denies ever threatening Don. She contends that Don only pursued it in an effort to stop her from hauling his junk off their property when he was away in Costa Rica. (Carole has gone into salacious detail explaining why, and when, he took those trips.)
Perhaps the most compelling reason to discredit the Carole-killed-him theory? The fact that she has never been a suspect (despite Joe’s claim to the contrary). In fact, she isn’t even a person of interest, according to the sheriff’s office. There is currently no evidence whatsoever to implicate her.
Another element in her favor? Howard Baskin’s unequivocal support. A highly educated former management consultant, he’s arguable the most “normal” person in the show’s colorful cast of characters – coming across, at times, like the Fred Rogers of the big cat world. Baskin released an impassioned video defense of his wife’s character and reputation. He also railed against the show’s producers, claiming they morphed what was initially pitched as a Blackfish-style exposé into a money grab.
As the show illustrates, there are two sides to every story. (More like dozens of sides to every story.) This brief analysis only scratches the surface. And there are far more questions than answers. If Carole didn’t kill Don, who did? Despite Carole’s suspicions that he suffered from early-stage Alzheimer’s – and her speculation that he crashed one of his many small planes into the Gulf – the Hillsborough County Sheriff thinks it was homicide. Don’s former attorney claims to know details about how Don was murdered. In his view, Don was checking out a potential plane to buy when he was pushed out of the plane’s window into the Gulf (by whom or for what reason, the attorney hasn’t revealed).
We may never know the answer. But one thing is for certain: There’s enough fodder to devote an entire spinoff series to this subplot alone.
Maybe it will be called Tiger Queen.