Carole Baskin: No Pussycat

By Duncan Strauss

Big cats tend to provoke big feelings.

If you see a male lion crouched in the Africa plains, his mane blowing in the wind, you might experience a surging wave of adrenalin in the face of his majestic power.

If you see a sprinting cheetah bearing down on an impala, you might be immensely inspired by the cat’s athletic grace (and thinking maybe, about the impala, poor bastard. And/or: circle of life.)

If you see a litter of baby tigers, you might be ultra-charmed by how irresistibly cute they are, perhaps accompanied by a powerful urge to coo “ahhh” at the cubs.

Of course, some folks seeing those cubs are instead hit by a powerful blast of a darker feeling—greed—and the corresponding entrepreneurial understanding that countless people would pay for the privilege of petting those cubs. Just as some people seeing that cheetah might decide they’d like to keep it in their basement as a pet, while others gazing upon that lion might see him as the star attraction in the new roadside zoo they’re about to open.

On the ground with Big Cat Rescue

Carole Baskin well understands this cat-triggered bundle of feelings—the good, the bad, the ugly—and triggers quite a crazy quilt of emotions herself (we’ll come back to this in a moment, believe me). Baskin is the founder of Big Cat Rescue, located in Tampa, Florida, and considered the largest accredited sanctuary in the world dedicated entirely to abused and abandoned big cats.

How many cats live there, you might ask.  

“We have 102 exotic cats,” she said in an in-studio interview Nov. 28 on Talking Animals,  “and six animals who are not cats at the sanctuary: African civets and Binturongs.”

2012 marks the twentieth anniversary of Big Cat Rescue rescuing big cats, and over the course of those two decades, Baskin and Big Cat Rescue have evolved from a business that bought, sold and bred big cats, to a high-profile non-profit organization that is adamantly against people buying, selling and breeding those animals, a leader in legislative efforts to end the private possession and breeding of big cats in the U.S., and is part of a Big Cat Coalition that, among other objectives, seeks to further halt the so-called “pay-to-play” enterprises by which people can pet and have their pictures taken with big cat cubs in malls and elsewhere.

Carole Baskin interviewed by Duncan Strauss on NPR’s Talking Animals: the first volley against Joe Schreibvogel

This evolution, very much including Baskin’s outspoken criticism of breeding operations (whether they’re gussied-up to project the image of a legitimate facility, or not) and pay-to-play impresarios has made Carole Baskin a highly polarizing figure. For some years now, she has routinely been on the receiving end of harsh criticism herself, ranging from vicious attacks over what her detractors view as hypocrisy and the way she runs Big Cat Rescue, to dark whispers and full-throated charges about the mysterious disappearance 15 years ago of her late husband, millionaire Don Lewis.

With this complex portrait in mind, I inquired early in this Talking Animals conversation (she’d previously been on the show in November of 2006) how Big Cat Rescue got started, and how some of the animals arrived there.

On Talking Animals, with host Duncan Strauss, Carole Baskin talks Big Cat legislation.

“We just celebrated our 20th year,” Baskin answered, “and 20 years ago, we were at an auction where taxidermists were bidding on a bobcat. And so, to keep her from being killed and made into a den decoration, we brought her home. And that led us to discovering that cats were being killed in fur farms.

“And so the next year, we rescued 56 bobcats and lynx off of a fur farm in Minnesota, the following year, 28 bobcats and lynx, and the year after that, another 22 bobcat and lynx. And then people started calling, “Would you take my lion, would you take my tiger?” That was like ’95 or ’96 and that’s when we discovered that there were so many of these animals in backyards and basements.”

“One of the most recent rescues we just did were five servals —which is a cheetah-type cat—that a woman was keeping in her basement in New York. New York has finally passed laws against keeping these animals as pets. But whenever they pass laws like that, they allow the animals that the people have to stay, because they don’t want to displace them. But she ended up having to move, because of financial issues, and she couldn’t take them with her when she moved.”

So, five new big cats at Big Cat Rescue, and if you happen to find yourself in the Tampa area, you can see these servals, or the 97 other felines living at the sanctuary. Under very controlled, very specific circumstances.

On NPR’s Talking Animals with host Duncan Strauss, Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue discusses the personal changes she’s undergone since founding the organization 20 years ago, and the key triumphs and initiatives during those two decades.

“The only way that we allow people to visit is on a guided tour, and the guided tours are an hour and a half long,” Baskin explained.  “We have one of our keepers go around, introduce them to the cats and tell them the stories of how those cats got there. And our mission is to educate people as to why they shouldn’t be going to see the latest cub at the zoo, or why they shouldn’t be paying to play with an animal in a mall, or why they shouldn’t be going to the circus.

“And it’s been a huge help to us in our legislative efforts, because as these people are now coming off of the tour, what we have them do is go straight into the gift shop, pick up the phone and call their lawmaker. And we’ve had over 700 calls to Congress to support our bills that we currently have pending that would end the private possession of these animals.”

By which Baskin means there have been 700 calls placed to various members of Congress about big cat issues and legislation from the Big Cat Rescue gift shop. Moreover, she says, tens of thousands comparable e-mails have been sent through the sanctuary’s website (which, incidentally, is so vast and rich and sprawling that it occupies the territory equal to that of a small country.)

More in a moment about legislative efforts—which, it’s safe to say, may be Baskin’s chief passion, as the only truly tangible and meaningful way to end the private possession, breeding and other forms of exploitation of big cats—but first, on a related note, a few words about Joe Schreibvogel.

Sometimes referring to himself under the moniker “Joe Exotic,” Joe Schreibvogel owns G.W. Exotic Animal Animal Park, a zoo of sorts in Oklahoma City, and is also considered perhaps the country’s largest breeder of tigers—and, therefore, is the chief supplier of cubs to pay-to-play operations. (And now, pay-to-swim attractions by which customers fork over cash to swim in a pool with tiger cubs. A Florida joint called Wild Things generated national news coverage in recent months by introducing its pay-to-swim program, whose cubs are thought to come from…you guessed it, Joe Schreibvogel.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5so9pLXO30

An Inside Edition exposé of Joe Schreibvogel, chief supplier of tiger cubs to pay-to-play operations and chief nemesis of Carole Baskin

This, as you might imagine by now, means Schreibvogel and Baskin occupy completely opposite ends of the philosophical continuum regarding big cat issues. It clearly runs considerably deeper than looking at these topics differently, or even vehement disagreement. These two really don’t like each other. On the Talking Animals Facebook page, after I posted a blurb about Baskin’s then-forthcoming appearance, Schreibvogel messaged me, “you had the world’s largest scammer on your show… put me on your show and let me ask her publicly if she fed her husband to the tigers….”

On his Facebook page, the introductory statement about him includes this phrase: “I only hate 2 people in the world and that would be Carole Baskin of Tampa, and [PETA leader] Ingrid Newkirk of VA.”

So I fully expected that Schreibvogel would call into Talking Animals during the Baskin interview, and he did not disappoint. We don’t screen the calls on this show, so boom!, without identifying himself, there he was on the line—and on the air:

“If she’s been rescuing bobcats since 1992, how come she bought those bobcats as babies and turned around and sold them to private owners—and most of them died. We have the original receipts from the USDA, saying how much she bought them for, and sold them for…How can you say you’ve been rescuing animals since 1992, when you were buying and selling the exact bobcats that you just claimed you were rescuing?

Me: Can I just ask, Is this Joe?

Schreibvogel: Yes.

Baskin: in the early years of the sanctuary, we felt like we were rescuing these bobcats from being killed and turned into coats, putting them into pet homes made perfect sense to me, because I thought they were doing what we were doing—taking care of the animals. But what we found is that people started calling us up a year later, saying, “I can’t deal with this adult bobcat.” So they started coming back.

And Joe’s got his facts wrong, and he always does. To get a little bit of background on Joe, all you have to do is go to TigerCubAbuse.com. There, you can see videos of him smacking this tiny little tiger cub with a whip, saying “if they don’t want to move, pop ‘em in the ass and make ‘em move.” There’s also video there of his staff punching cubs in the face. And we got undercover video of him using a 20-week old cub that jumped on this little boy and bit him on the leg.

Yowza. The exchange continued like that for another few minutes, evoking the fiery exchanges between professional wrestlers or between Donald Trump and—well, just about everyone. In the interest of cultivating a richer conversation that reflected some of the thinking and charges leveled against Baskin by the other side, I allowed Schreibvogel to talk largely uninterrupted (by me) for several minutes.

‘They don’t wanna walk, pop ‘em in the ass and make ‘em walk’: the Human Society of the United States (HSUS) investigative report on Joe Schreibvogel’s G.W. Exotics in Oklahoma. ‘This is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off,’ says a HSUS official. Warning: this video contains some unsettling footage of animal abuse.

Once his call was finished, and aiming for wry understatement, I suggested that these two probably won’t be exchanging Christmas cards this year. I also asked Baskin to elaborate on how pay-to-play works and what it means on the big cat landscape, Schreibvogel’s role in this, and the overall big cat implications.

“There are about 33 places advertising that you can come in and play with a baby tiger or a baby lion,” she said. “We figure a conservative estimate is that there are 200 big cats that are being bred for that purpose alone, every year. Of those 200 cats, probably a quarter of them are coming from Joe Schreibvogel.

“At the time he first came up on my radar, which was 2009, 2010, he was doing 50 gigs at malls across the US. So he’d set up on Wednesday, go through Sunday. He’d have to have the cubs there that were the right age to be used for that purpose, and people would be lined up around the mall. Coming in, handling the cats for just a few minutes. And then it’s passed on to the next person, and the next person, and the next person.

“So these animals live a horrible life of just being constantly manhandled and dropped. When the cubs don’t want to be held, they kick and scream, so what the handlers to do make them stop is hold them under their arms, they bounce them up and down, they blow in their faces—which is what a mother cat does when she’s disciplining them; it’s the last thing she does before knocking ‘em across the room. So the cubs know what’s coming next if they don’t’ stop. So it’s an awful life for these animals, and it’s adding to the problem every time they do it.”

The cute tiger cubs you see at fairs, malls and parking lots will spend their entire lives in tiny cages or will be killed for their body parts to use in traditional Asian medicine. It is estimated that there are 10,000 to 20,000 big cats currently held in private ownership in the U.S., although the exact number remains a mystery. Since 1990, U.S. incidents involving captive big cats—including tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs and lion/tiger hybrids—have resulted in the deaths of 21 humans, 247 maulings, 259 escapes, 143 big cats deaths and 132 confiscations.

TAKE ACTION NOW! Help put an end to the abuse of big cats and help ensure the safety of the public. This is the most important bill to ever be introduced to protect big cats. Please click the link and contact your state representatives letting them know that you support H.R.4122. The latest update from govtrack.us indicates the bill has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources–where bills usually go to die–and estimates its chances of being past committee at 17 percent, and only a seven percent chance of being enacted. The Committee is comprised of 27 Republicans (including several right wing lunatics, chief among them the certifiably nutty Louis Gohmert Jr. [R-TX-1], who in healthier times would be institutionalized) and 20 Democrats and is chaired by Rep. Doc Hasting (R-WA4).

Sometimes solving this sort of problem requires creating brand new legislation and displaying great patience as it churns its way through the process (Baskin says most exotic animal bills take six years to pass, when they do), and sometimes what’s required is pushing for tighter, more aggressive enforcement of existing legislation. That appears to be the most effective way to address pay-to-play (and pay-to-swim), by petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enforce the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act that prohibit causing trauma, stress and discomfort to the performing animals.

This, Baskin explained is part of a gambit by the Big Cat Coalition—which consists of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Humane Society of the United States, the World Wildlife Fund, Born Free, the Animal Defense Fund, the Ian Sommerhalder Foundation, and Big Cat Rescue—to end the captive trade in big cats.

On the legislative side of the gambit sit two pending bills, under the title Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act: S 3547, introduced by Senator John Kerry with five co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle; and HR 4122, introduced in April with bipartisan support from 57 co-sponsors.

This may only underscore the profound importance of legislation affecting any meaningful change in the big cat world. Anyone who’s spent much time in the animal welfare world has found himself asking, “Why isn’t there a law against that?…or “How can we pass a law against that?”  Baskin and her Big Cat compadres are actually doing this—they are working to pass such laws.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XVR-5V6viI

On CBS This Morning, Joe Schreibvogel defends his indefensible stewardship of big cats and answers the Humane Society of America president’s charge that his business is ‘a ticking time bomb.’ Says Schreibvogel: ‘It is a ticking time bomb if anyone thinks they’re going to walk in here and take my animals away. It’ll be small Waco.’

It’s certainly a running theme of this Talking Animals interview with Carole Baskin. At one point, I asked her, over the 20 years of Big Cat Rescue’s existence, how she felt the sanctuary has changed most profoundly.

“I’ll tell you, if I had to do it over again, I never would’ve rescued the first animal,” she replied almost instantly. “And the reason is, what I have discovered is that, even though we have rescued several hundred animals over the course of our 20 years, and have really done right by them, we’re saving tens of thousands of animals with our legislative efforts.

“And for the 100 animals I currently care for, we having to raise in the neighborhood of $1.5 to $1.8 million a year to take care of feeding and properly caring for those animals. If that money were going into changing the laws so that people couldn’t be breeding and exploiting those animals—it’d be over. We would’ve fixed this problem by now.”

Click this link to listen to the Talking Animals interview with Carole Baskin.

Click this link to listen to the 2006 Talking Animals interview with Ms. Baskin.