Animal activist Carole Baskin became a household name in March when Netflix released its docuseries "Tiger King."
Despite her newfound fame, Baskin has spent the past few months managing her Tampa, Florida, sanctuary Big Cat Rescue in the midst of a pandemic.
Speaking to Insider, Baskin said it's been surreal running Big Cat Rescue without visitors in recent weeks, as the sanctuary now feels empty.
She also discussed her choice to raise money for Big Cat Rescue through the sale of animal-print masks, and why she and her husband decided to give up their paychecks for the time being while
Many fans of the series embraced Baskin, her mission to stop the big-cat trade, and her famous catchphrase: "Hey all you cool cats and kittens." Others were fixated by Baskin's feud with former zookeeper Joseph Maldonado-Passage (aka Joe Exotic), who is currently serving time in prison after being convicted of plotting to murder Baskin. Some viewers of the show have also speculated that Baskin may have had a role in the disappearance of her first husband, Don Lewis; Baskin has denied any involvement, and previously spoke about Lewis going missing in a YouTube video.
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Around the same time that "Tiger King" was released, the coronavirus pandemic struck, affecting people and businesses around the globe. Baskin's sanctuary Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, is no different — the location was forced to cut some staff, halt visitors, and implement new safety protocols as a result.
Speaking to Insider, the animal activist discussed how her refuge has been affected in recent weeks, and how she's still found time to advocate for big cats.
Carole Baskin told Insider that her sanctuary Big Cat Rescue has seen some changes as a result of the pandemic
Florida has been majorly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of writing, more than 57,000 residents have become infected, and another 2,530 have died after becoming sick, according to the Miami Herald.
As a result, Governor Ron DeSantis ordered a statewide lockdown at the beginning of April, causing businesses and organizations to completely change their daily operations. Big Cat Rescue, for example, has temporarily halted guided tours of its premises.
"It's been surreal here at the sanctuary without guests," Baskin told Insider. "Even though most days we only had a 3 p.m. tour, and on weekends we'd have a few tours of about 20 people each, I never realized how empty it would seem here without them."
By halting these guided tours, Baskin said Big Cat Rescue has lost approximately one-third of its revenue.
"Losing that meant we had to let go 10 of our 20 staff, and my husband and I are not taking paychecks," she said.
"We are trying out new ways of bringing virtual tours to our supporters," she continued. "We have always done Facebook Live broadcasts each day, but now we are trying to bring more consistent content like Feeding Tours LIVE, Keeper Tours LIVE, Singing Sundays, Cats for Kids on Saturdays, etc."
On Friday, most Florida counties began the second phase of the state's multi-wave reopening plan. Gyms, restaurants, and even amusement parks like Universal Orlando were allowed to take part, though with new rules, regulations, and limited capacities. But it's unlikely that Big Cat Rescue will join the list anytime soon.
"If we were going to open to the public, we would require masks, temperature scans, and some sort of accounting for where they were before coming here," Baskin told Insider. "Even then, I don't know that I would feel safe exposing our volunteers or cats to this invisible killer."
She also said she's worried that a supporter of Exotic might try to harm the animals of Big Cat Rescue, saying: "Even if COVID-19 is under control by the end of next year — and I think it will be at least that long — I don't know if I would ever take the risk of allowing one deranged person from the #FreeJoeExotic clan to gain access."
Baskin says her team have also had to implement protocols that maintain the safety of animals at Big Cat Rescue
Since the pandemic made its way to the US, cats both big and small have tested positive for coronavirus. Though Baskin maintains that her sanctuary has always utilized safe practices, Big Cat Rescue has started to require all staff members and volunteers to wear masks around the animals.
"We have always been fanatical about cleanliness and prevention of transmission of disease by wearing gloves while preparing food and cleaning," Baskin said. "We have added wearing face masks when preparing the cat's food and when we are in close proximity to them."
The sanctuary has not had to limit the number of workers on its grounds, meaning volunteers can still care for the cats in the ways they usually do
"Our number of volunteers has stayed steady," Baskin said. "Even though we typically have 80 to 110 volunteers, each one is only required to put in between four to 16 hours per week, so we have never had an issue of too many people at a time."
In an Insider piece about how "Tiger King" depicted Big Cat Rescue, Maddie Stone described Baskin's use of volunteers as "controversial, even among those in the animal-care community." Carnivore ecologist Tyus Williams, for example, told Stone that free volunteer work can discourage those without financial freedom to help, and Jake Belair, an animal keeper at the Nashville Zoo, said animals "deserve expert care, not free care."
Speaking to Insider, Baskin said those within the animal industry who criticize Big Cat Rescue's volunteers do so because "people want to get paid to work with wild animals" and it "threatens their dream jobs." She added that "people equate free labor with unskilled labor," which she feels could not "be further from the truth."
To make sure that volunteers have adequate knowledge and experience, Big Cat Rescue requires they take 50 online courses through ZooCollege.com, pass them with good grades, and later work with expert keepers for 12 days of training. Baskin said Big Cat Rescue's "time requirement" is yet another "layer of accountability" at play.
"People must put in between four and 32 hours per week, depending on their level of proficiency and training, or they cannot remain in the program," Baskin said. "We use a shirt color system so we can tell at a distance the level of training a volunteer has, so we know if they are allowed to be near certain cats. Interns put in more hours, but we provide them with housing and a food stipend, whereas many other facilities charge thousands of dollars for people to come play around at animal care for a week or two. Most of those places offer hands-on play time and are really just exploitive money-making schemes operating under the guise of conservation."
"No one who has actually trained here as a volunteer or intern would ever say they weren't thoroughly trained and managed," she added. "At many zoos, a person can be hired to care for big cats and within a week, with no formal training in caring for big cats, have the keys to the cages. Enshala the tiger who was accidentally set free and then shot to death at the Lowry Park Zoo was just one sad example. At Big Cat Rescue a person works with the smaller cats, like 25-pound bobcats to 40-pound lynx, for two years before they can ever even be within three feet of the outside of a big cat's cage, and they never get the keys. "
Some critics of Big Cat Rescue have also argued that enclosures at Big Cat Rescue are too small, based on scenes from "Tiger King." In her report, Stone argued that shots of the sanctuary are misleading, and make the enclosures "look appallingly small in the few glimpses we get."
Valerie Taylor, the executive director of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries — which conducted an audit of Big Cat Rescue in 2019 — told Stone "these enclosures are for small cats, such as bobcats and servals." In reality, according to Stone, most of the sanctuary's habitats are larger than 1,200 square feet, and live webcams show that the cats have access to "shaded areas with trees, open-air play yards, and a lake."
Representatives for Netflix, and "Tiger King" directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, did not respond to Insider's previous requests for comment when asked about its depiction of Big Cat Rescue.
"Our cats are spread out over many acres, so there is plenty of room to social distance," Baskin said. "In buildings, such as Food Prep, the onsite Windsong Hospital, and the Gift Shop, they wear masks and stay six feet apart."
Controversy aside, Baskin told Insider that there's still one major difference between Big Cat Rescue and zoos like the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park: their philosophy.
"Our belief is that no wild cat should be born for life in a cage," she said. "We believe that people will never save habitat as long as they can get their 'big cat fix' at a zoo. If the only place to see wild cats is in the wild, then people will do the hard work of protecting habitat which ends up saving us all."
Baskin has also found ways to advocate for big cats while staying inside and social distancing
One of the main ways she's done so is through the sale of animal-print masks that she created in collaboration with water-polo brand Tread365. Each face-covering retails for $11, with a portion of proceeds going towards Big Cat Rescue and donating masks to first responders.
"The cat themed masks seemed like a natural fit because if we all have to wear them, we may as well use that 'white space' to advocate for better laws to protect the cats," Baskin told Insider. "There is great momentum to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, so now is the time to make that call or send that email at BigCatAct.com."
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