In a past life, I was a newspaper journalist. I worked for several publications, pushing out more than 1,000 stories with my byline over 7 years. I mostly was assigned to write about trifling shit — random criminals, house fires, school board meetings. It’s no surprise that I don’t remember most of them. Until someone told me, I didn’t even realize that I wrote a story 10 years ago about a local mall’s traveling tiger cub exhibit that ultimately helped fuel the undoing of the “Tiger King” Joe Exotic.
Just a few days after the “Tiger King” series debuted on Netflix, I received a message from a former editor at the last paper I worked for, a small daily in Michigan City, Indiana.
“Hey! I don’t know if you’re watching Tiger King on Netflix, but evidently you have a connection to this guy and his rival organization! Remember this? I didn’t.”
Then he sent me a link to a story I wrote that was published Dec. 11, 2010 — only it was reprinted on bigcatrescue.org, the website for Carole Baskin’s wild cat rescue sanctuary in Florida. Reading the story immediately snapped me back to the day I spent researching and doing interviews with people in order to write it — including one with Baskin, herself.
When I came into work that morning, my boss told me he wanted me to go check out these tiger cubs at the mall. He said they were on exhibit over the weekend, and people could pay to play with them. Obviously our readership would be interested in this sort of thing, he said, whether they wanted to actually do it or get mad about other people doing it. And, boy, was he right.
I showed up to the mall with my notepad and camera, and the woman who operated these exhibits, Beth Corley, was obviously wary of my presence. She did not want me taking a bunch of pictures or asking a ton of questions. I’ve never had a problem letting people check the accuracy of what I’m writing down, though, so I did get a few good quotes from her. I did happen to be there when some girls came by wanting to play with the cubs, so I got a usable shot for the story.
I knew I couldn’t just write a fluff piece about how cool it was that there were tigers at the mall. I personally really hated the idea of this traveling tiger cub exhibit. It seemed to exploit and endanger the animals by taking them on the road and putting them in direct contact with the public. Circuses were phasing out animal acts for a reason. I had a duty to provide balanced reporting. So I checked out “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment” on the internet, and everything kind of snowballed from there.
Of course, one of the first resources that popped up was Carole Baskin’s website, which is similar in name. I found out more about the different names Corley operated the tour under, all connecting back to G.W. Exotic Animal Memorial Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. Of course, Baskin had published several things about her opposition to these tours, so I called her park to try to reach her. I had her on the phone in five minutes.
You can read what I quoted from our interview in my story. I do remember she didn’t seem too “out there” when I talked to her, although she clearly didn’t like Joe Schriebvogel, the owner of G.W. Park. She definitely didn’t call me a cool cat or kitten. I just chalked it up to activists being activists and went on to finish my interviews so I could write the story for the next day.
I had to call Corley again to tell her about the information I discovered and try to get her reaction. I remember asking Corley if I could talk to Joe Schriebvogel, since he was the owner of the park where the cubs came from. She shut that down. If I had had any clue that “Joe Exotic,” as he likes to call himself, is some kind of people charming, tiger-worshipping flamer with a bleached mullet, you can bet your sweet ass I would have been calling that park repeatedly trying to get him on the phone (and for the record, I say that with all due respect). I would have LOVED to break this story.
But at that point I had to get the story done that I was assigned to do. I did try to make my reporting as fair and balanced as possible. I realize now that I unwittingly played right into the already years-long feud between those two big cat lovers. I don’t think the cubs ever came back to our mall after that visit. I had no idea until I actually watched “Tiger King” that my reporting became part of the copyright and trademark infraction lawsuit in which Baskin won that $1 million judgment against Schreibvogel in 2013.
I’m not sure how I feel about the series itself, or what has happened to the “Tiger King.” I’m just glad they aren’t taking those tiger cubs on tour anymore. But honestly, Baskin’s sanctuary doesn’t seem much better for the big cats than any of the breeding parks, from what I saw on the documentary. I can only hope all of the cats end up somewhere they are well cared for.
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