Carole Baskin’s greeting, delivered in her melodious singsong voice, is just one of the unforgettable vignettes from Netflix’s latest must-watch docuseries.
The documentary, which dropped in the middle of our self-isolation boredom to rapturous, insatiable acclaim, is ostensibly about the world of big cat captivity in the US, a booming industry with numbers far outweighing those in the wild.
It’s ostensibly about that, yes, but what it’s really about is a tale as old as time: greed, envy, gluttony, sloth, lust, avarice and wrath. The seven deadly sins.
On the one side you have Carole Baskin, an earthmother in her floral crowns and leopard print kaftans who declares that her Florida wildlife sanctuary is about saving big cats from a life of cruelty and breeding.
On the other you have a cast of colourful characters led by Joe Exotic, a mullet-sporting, gun-toting, gay polygamist who runs a park stuffed with more than 200 tigers up in Oklahoma. He calls himself the “Tiger King”.
The rivalry between the two, as set out in the Netflix documentary, comes down to whether or not Joe – with a failed Governor’s campaign and a busted reality television show to his name – is mistreating the animals in his zoo.
Joe, lashing out at the claims of Carole and other animal protection groups, launches a campaign against Carole. He copies her logo for his own purposes. He protests outside her park. He publishes video after video antagonising, including one in which he shoots at a blow-up doll with a mouth stuffed with a dildo dressed as Carole.
And then he starts claiming that Carole killed her second husband, the millionaire property developer Don Lewis.
The entirety of Tiger King’s third episode is devoted to this claim, digging into whether or not there is any truth to it, and fans of the Netflix series are divided over what the truth of the matter is. So, what really happened to Don Lewis?
THE MISSING PERSON CASE
Carole met Don when she was 20 and mother to a young daughter. He was a successful businessman some 22 years her senior, with a wife and two kids. They soon began a relationship, though Carole did not leave her first husband until she was 24.
Carole and Don’s shared love of big cats bonded them. Together, the couple began purchasing bobcats and lynxes, beginning in 1992.
After a while, they owned hundreds of big cats, saved from captivity and housed on their property.
The Netflix series suggests that Carole and Don’s motivations in running their sanctuary differed. Don, according to the documentary, was keen to breed big cats and run a profitable business. Carole’s intentions ran more towards animal protection.
In the time leading up to his disappearance, she alleged in a blog post on her website, that Don was beginning to show signs of “mental deterioration”.
“His behaviour became increasingly strange. He started refusing to use the bathroom and defecating outside,” Carole wrote in her blog post.
“I rescheduled an appointment for him to see the specialist … But he disappeared before the appointment date.”
On 18 August 1997, Don Lewis went missing.
He told his wife Carole that he was headed to Costa Rica. His van was found at an airport. He knew how to fly a plane and owned several light aircraft, although none of them were capable of making the flight from Miami to Costa Rica without refuelling.
In fact, there was no record of Don taking any flight at all. His credit cards had never been used. The Floridian property developer and millionaire, had simply … disappeared.
Over the years, the case of the missing millionaire has attracted media and online interest, stoked intermittently by Joe Exotic.
In 1998, People magazine ran an in-depth article about the case, running through what evidence did exist. Some two months before Don went missing, he filed a restraining order against Carole (the injunction was denied).
Carole hired a private investigator to help solve the case, but the PI came up empty-handed. Since his disappearance, Carole and Don’s children and ex-wife had been locked in a bitter legal battle over the proceeds of his estate.
Tiger King’s third episode, which focuses entirely on the missing persons case, interviewed scores of people involved at the time, from Carole herself to Don’s first wife and two daughters, who believe that Carole knows more than she is letting on.
There was a meat grinder on the property, which his daughters wanted to be DNA-tested.
Don’s personal assistant, who believed that she was, alongside Carole, investigated as a potential suspect, regaled how documents pertaining to Don’s power of attorney, and his will, went missing from the office in the aftermath of his disappearance.
When a will was produced, it was predicated upon the event of “disappearance”, rather than death.
“I have, in 37 years, never seen it say ‘or disappearance’, never have. In that respect this is terribly unusual,” Joseph Fritz, lawyer to Don, told Tiger King’s producers in episode three.
Joe Exotic, who dedicated online videos and websites to suggesting Carole’s involvement in Don’s disappearance, hinted that the acid content in a tiger’s stomach could easily digest a human body and dissolve the bones.
It is a suggestion that echoes the one made, in 1998, to People magazine by Don’s daughter Donna. “It’s a perfect scenario to dispose of someone,” said Donna.
Don’s lawyer, however, laughed at that particular claim in. “There’d be a skeleton, there’d be bones, there’d be something,” he said.
Throughout 1997, reports from Costa Rica suggested that Don had been seen in the area. But he was never found.
“The investigation has not given us a direction on where to look for clues,” investigator John Marsicano, of the Hillsborough Sheriff’s office, told the Tampa Bay Times in 1997. “I wish we had a whole lot more. We have looked in every conceivable direction.”
THE RESPONSE TO TIGER KING
After watching the Netflix docuseries, and in particular the third episode of the show, many viewers were left questioning what the truth of the missing person’s case was.
Though Don’s body was never found, and five years after he went missing he was declared dead by the state of Florida, some believed Joe Exotic’s claims that there was foul play involved.
That includes celebrities, including Gwyneth Paltrow, who shared their thoughts on social media. “THERE IS NO OTHER EXPLANATION,” she commented under an Instagram post.
Elsewhere, on Twitter, dozens of people aired their theories about the alleged crime.
Carole, for her part, has refuted the claims put forward in and has always maintained her innocence in Don’s disappearance.
“There are not words for how disappointing it is to see that the series … has had the sole goal of being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers,” she wrote in a blog post.
“As part of that, it has 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 … They did not care about the truth. The unsavoury lies are better for getting viewers.”
Meticulously, Carole’s blog post goes about refuting the claims in episode three of that she was involved in Don’s disappearance.
She claims that she was instrumental in the amassing of Don’s fortune.
Even the use of the word “disappearance” in the power of attorney documents was not unusual, in fact, given how often people did go missing in Costa Rica at the time.
And the meat grinder? The one Carole and Don owned was a small, household version, not the large kind pictured in the documentary.
“Meat had to first be cut into one-inch cubes … to go through it,” Carole wrote.
“The idea that a human body and skeleton could be put through it is idiotic. But the Netflix directors did not care. They just showed a bigger grinder.”
So, what is the truth? The fact is that we may never know. After the documentary dropped on Netflix at the end of March, zooming to the top of Australia’s most-watched charts, a Florida sheriff has called for those with information to come forward.
“I figured it would be a good time to ask for new leads,” he wrote in a tweet.
According to the sheriff’s message, Don would now be 81 years old. He has been missing for more than two decades.
Still, as Carole put it to magazine back in 1998: “My tigers eat meat; they don’t eat people. There would be bones and remains of my husband out there. I’m amazed that people would even think such a thing.”
Tiger King is streaming on Netflix now.