For nearly 20 years, Joe Exotic ran the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma that was home to over 1200 lions, tigers, bears, wolves and snakes.
And while his reign as King of the Jungle lasted just under two decades, the former zookeeper has now been sentenced to 22 years in prison for paying a hitman $3,000 for the murder-for-hire plot to kill animal rights activist, Carole Baskin.
Even though Exotic (Joe Maldonado-Passage) is the convicted felon, the docuseries seems to leave a lot of unanswered questions about Baskin — namely what on earth happened to her husband, Don Lewis.
Baskin, an animal rights activist, founded the Big Cat Rescue Animal Sanctuary in Florida, with a mission to save big cats from cruelty and exploitation.
But it was her somewhat bizarre relationship with husband, Lewis, and his disappearance in August 1997, that has left people scratching their heads.
Lewis was a self-made millionaire who met Baskin on the side of the road when she was out on a walk after having an argument with her first husband. Pulling over to see if she was OK, Lewis asked if she would get into the car so that they could “just talk”, and even offered for her to hold his gun to his head which was sitting on the front seat to prove he wasn’t going to harm her (yes, really!).
When Lewis vanished, his car was found at a nearby airport, however, the documentary alludes to the fact that many people, including Exotic and Lewis’ ex-wife and children, believe that Baskin was behind it all.
In a statement to celebrity outlet, People, Baskin refuted claims that she was involved in the disappearance of her husband.
“There are no words for how disappointing it is to see that the series not only does not do any of that but has instead chosen to be as salacious and sensational as possible to draw in viewers. As part of that, they devoted an entire segment to 23-year-old lies and innuendos suggesting I was involved in my husband Don’s 1997 disappearance.”
In an interview on the Fox Nation series A Tiger King Investigation in April, Lewis’ lawyer Joseph Fritz said there was “no question” that his former client had been “murdered”.
“What I had heard was that he was strangled from the back seat of an aeroplane over the Gulf [of Mexico] at 50 feet and dropped out over the Gulf,” he said during the show.
“He loved those cats. He never would have just walked away from them. Ever. He was proud of those cats. He loved his cats. Some force made him leave.”
In a 1998 interview with People, Donna Pettis, Lewis’ eldest daughter, claimed that Baskin may have fed her father’s body to her big cats — “a perfect scenario to dispose of someone. We were upset that the cops didn’t test the DNA on the meat grinder.”
However, at the time, Baskin told the outlet that it was “ludicrous”. “My tigers eat meat; they don’t eat people,” she said.
According to court documents two months prior to his disappearance, Lewis had filed a restraining order against his wife, claiming that she had threatened to shoot him, however, the injunction was not approved.
Baskin, on the other hand, alleged that Lewis was “gradually showing signs of mental deterioration” and suspected Alzheimer’s or another condition to explain his behaviour.
In an open letter on her animal sanctuary website, she wrote: “He deteriorated into dumpster diving and even got stuck in a dumpster and called me crying because he did not know where he was.”
“His behaviour became increasingly strange. He started refusing to use the bathroom and defecating outside. He brought in a homeless man to stay in our house.”
According to the now 58-year-old, Lewis was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and gave him a prescription MRI.
“I did not find the prescription until I was searching for his bedside table looking for clues to his disappearance.”
Lewis, 59 when he disappeared, was referred to as “sexaholic” and also spent one week of every month in Costa Rica.
“Don was a man who wanted to have sex daily. He would go to Costa Rica during the week I was having my menstrual cycle. I accepted this as something I had to live with,” she said in her rebuttal to the series.
When he was away, she would “haul off the property as much of the junk as I could”, which prompted him to take out the restraining order, before adding that he “was not easy to live with”.
“And like most couples, we had our moments,” she said. “But I never threatened him and I certainly had nothing to do with his disappearance. When he disappeared, I did everything I could to assist the police. I encouraged them to check out the rumours from Costa Rica, and separately I hired a private investigator. ”
Baskin also addressed a claim that Anne McQueen, Lewis’ “trusted assistant” (who also embezzled roughly $600,000 in properties with their funds) was asked by her boss to deliver the restraining order if “something had happened to him”.
“Anne claims Don told her to give the document to the police if anything happened to him,” she said. “If someone tells you that, and the person disappears two months later, do you “forget” that, as Anne claims? No, you remember and give it to the police immediately.”
According to Baskin, Anne did not tell the police or herself about it until September 9, 1997, “when she claims to have suddenly remembered just in time to spring it on me in a court hearing with Judge Sexton as a way to try and have herself appointed as Conservator of our estate.”
Baskin concluded her post with: “Robert Moor’s Wondery Podcast “Joe Exotic” included discussion of Don’s disappearance but was much more honest and fair in their treatment of it. They ended the discussion by pointing out that the investigator told them that, in their dealings with me, “she was courteous and there was nothing that jumped out at me in terms of her demeanour that to make me think that she was not giving us accurate information or hiding anything.”
You can read Baskin’s entire statement refuting the documentary claims here.