As a journalist, I’ve had more than enough to do during this pandemic. So it wasn’t high on my list to binge-watch “Tiger King,” the Netflix series described as the “true murder-for-hire story from the underworld of big cat breeding.” I was hoping it would go away before I needed to pay any attention to its story line of “murder, mayhem and madness,” a zoo owner spiraling out of control and other eccentric characters.
It didn’t go away. Instead, memes about Carole Baskin began flooding my Facebook feed, calling her the devil incarnate.
Wait a minute, I said. That Carole Baskin? I know her.
Or at least she and I corresponded and spoke on the phone for several years in the mid-2000s. She even invited me to visit her Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Florida, though I never made the trip.
I didn’t have to. If I wanted to see big cats, I could stay right in Minnesota. In Sandstone, Tammy Quist runs the Wildcat Sanctuary. In the same town, trainer Cynthia Gamble kept her own menagerie. Or she did until 2006, when, faced with money woes, she skimped on their food and a hungry tiger fatally attacked her.
Then there’s Duluth, where a pet cougar and liger were kept right outside of town, and where a Joe Exotic type from Texas brought a pair of white tigers in a traveling carnival. The very pregnant female immediately gave birth, her four too-cute cubs evoking oohs and ahhs — until they died days later; the public spectacle with hay on the floor not being the best environment for newborn tigers.
None of this makes any sense in Minnesota, mind you. Sure, there are wide-open spaces and gophers for apex predators to snack on, but it’s hardly the native habitat for Tsavo lions or Bengal tigers, or even their Siberian cousins who might adapt to 20 below.
In truth, I didn’t have to go anywhere to get a big-cat experience because, full disclosure, my family’s pet in Chicago for 20 years was an ocelot. Better stated, we were his pets. Big cats don’t come with owners’ manuals, though we did get a book, “An Ocelot in Your Home.” It warned: “Never get your ocelot from an ad in the paper. It may be someone trying to dump a wild animal.” We got him from an ad in the paper and he was indeed wild. Scars on my ears (more than love bites) are testament of it to this day.
So I had to write about these felines when I took a newspaper job in Duluth. In response, big-cat people from around the country emerged, including Carole Baskin. À la Tiger King, each had less than kind things to say about the others, sparring in our editorials and letters to the editor. The Duluth News Tribune inadvertently became the tiger newspaper of record, with Quist, Baskin and Nevada big-cat owner Zuzana Kukol (whose cats appear briefly in “Tiger King”) offering the opinion, as far as I could interpret it, “Nobody knows how to raise big cats except me.”
Kukol, who doesn’t claim to operate a sanctuary and says she keeps her cats only for herself, was particularly critical of Baskin. She accused Baskin of running a “scam-tuary” and secretly breeding cats for sale. Baskin admitted she had previously been a breeder, but denied she was doing so at her current big-cat rest home. I recall pressing Baskin on the issue, and that she again denied it, but also that her correspondence tapered off soon afterward.
Maybe I needed to be more investigative: I didn’t ask her what happened to her late husband, which the Tiger King series intimates met his demise the same way Cynthia Gamble did.
So is it time to break down and watch the series? It would give me an introduction to Joe Exotic, who’s seemingly the one tiger person to escape my acquaintance. But if his big cat philosophy is “Nobody knows how to raise tigers except …”
I’ll skip the bingeing.
Robin Washington, of Duluth, is host of “Simply Superior” on Wisconsin Public Radio. He was previously editorial page editor and editor of the Duluth News Tribune. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @robinbirk.