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The Big Cat Fight: Activism, accusations lurk behind a pet project
TAMPA - Carole Baskin would like to forget that she once bred exotic big cats and sold them as house pets.
She would like everyone else to forget that her husband disappeared mysteriously 10 years ago, leaving her a rich woman.
She would rather that everyone thought of her the way she sees herself: a crusader for animal rights who believes no one should own a wild cat. Not a zoo. Not a sanctuary. Not even herself.
But to many who live and breathe exotic animals, Baskin is a hypocrite.
They point out that her own 40-acre Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Hillsborough County has 137 tigers, lions, leopards, lynx and other big cats. Her own "private collection," they call it.
They heckle her at state wildlife meetings. They picket her fundraising Fur Balls. And they speculate on what happened to her late husband, Don Lewis, calling police with tips.
"Did you feed him to the tigers?" someone once asked Baskin at the grocery store. Her own stepdaughter wanted police to test the meat grinder at the sanctuary for her missing father's DNA.
Baskin says she has no idea what happened to Lewis and she had nothing to do with it. She is simply focused on her mission to outlaw private ownership of big cats and arrive at a day when there is no longer a need to shelter them. A day when Big Cat Rescue closes.
"That's our ultimate goal: to put ourselves out of business," she says. For now, her sanctuary for big cats remains one of the largest in Florida. Baskin glides quietly between the steel enclosures at her overgrown sanctuary, nodding at the tigers and lions, cougars and leopards that lounge or pace around. Today she keeps her distance. No more "Mommy loves you," at least not out loud. No more bobcats in her bed.
Instead, she compiles statistics on big cat attacks and writes legislators. She firmly believes that exotic cats should be left to either wax or wane in the wild. People who think they're preserving the species in captivity (as she once did) are fooling themselves, she says.
"What drives a lot of these people to have these sanctuaries and pseudosanctuaries and backyard collections is that they love being around that kind of animal," Baskin says, dressed in cheetah print.
Her opinions and actions have inflamed many who love, breed, rescue and rehabilitate exotic animals in Florida. Some have sent out anonymous packets with letters and testimonials, to show Big Cat Rescue is simply a private collection masquerading as a rescue. They sign it "Crusaders for Animals."
The animosity reached a peak this year after Baskin helped get a liability law passed that would require owners of tigers, chimps and other exotic animals to get insurance in case of injuries.
Baskin also took it upon herself recently to send letters to more than 1,500 people around the state informing them that they live next door to an exotic animal even though state wildlife officials decided against doing so.
The dispute is largely playing out on the Internet and YouTube. Baskin has compiled a wall of shame of animal owners, complete with names, dates and actions on her Big Cat Rescue Web site. Exotic animal owners fight back on other Web sites.
Vernon Yates, a man who has about 200 exotic animals in Seminole, has clashed with her repeatedly, even calling her "A.K.A. The Liar" on his own wildlife rescue Web site.
But Baskin says she's not intimidated.
"It isn't about me or any other individual," she wrote in an e-mail. "It is the collective conscious of society that is evolving in such a way that keeping wild animals captive will soon be a thing of the past."
Exotic animal owners say they are trying to expose her heavy-handed fundraising, and what they say is her true intent: to be the only game in town.
Judy Watson, former education director at Big Cat Rescue, says Baskin tells less-than-truthful stories about how she rescued some of her cats from the pet trade or abuse. Sometimes Baskin bred or bought the cats herself, Watson says.
One example is Shere Khan, an 800-pound Siberian tiger that was undernourished and stuck in a cage up to its belly in feces when it was rescued, according to the Big Cat Rescue Web site.
But the man who sold Shere Khan to Baskin in 1994 says the tiger had the run of his house in Flat Rock, Ind., even sleeping with a pillow and comforter in the living room.
"That's baloney," says Dennis Hill, 50, who said he sold the tiger to Baskin for $800. "She uses this creative writing and plays on people's heartstrings. That situation never existed."
Baskin says the stories on her Web site are all true and Hill gave her Shere Khan in that condition. But she admits that some of the animals she claims to have rescued were actually her pets. But she says she has changed.
Her supporters say she has worked tirelessly to make people aware that owning big cats is misguided.
"She has been a pioneer in changing people's ways of viewing the animals from cute and cuddly balls of fur, to something they are going to be responsible for 20 to 25 years," says Jennifer Ruszczyk, 33, a Big Cat volunteer.
All the controversy has made Baskin cautious. In person, she is quiet yet passionate, guarded yet pointed. She'll talk about her purpose, but not her past.
She does write about it though. Her 12,000-page Web site is sprinkled with colorful stories about her childhood, the men in her life, her effort to lose weight and her infatuation with "The Secret," a belief that positive thinking can create results. There's even a video of her reading Wallace Wattles' The Science of Getting Rich.
Baskin says she left her Tampa home at 15 and took up with an older man, an abusive drunk. Met another man where she worked as a bookkeeper. Married him at 17, had a baby girl at 19.
And then there she was walking along a Tampa road barefoot, trying to subdue her anger. It was 1980. She had just thrown a potato at her husband. Her baby was 6 months old. And Lewis drove by. He was in his 40s with a wife, young children. She was 19 and beautiful in the way that Suzanne Somers is beautiful.
He stopped the car. She got in.
"I fell in love with him immediately," she says, smiling.
Baskin tried not to talk about Lewis, but inevitably he slipped into the conversation.
The two carried on an affair for a decade before Lewis' wife divorced him. Though he had made millions in trucking and foreclosures, he gave Baskin a $14 engagement ring from a pawnshop.
"He looked like someone who basically came home from a 50-hour workweek on a road crew," recalled James Moore, Lewis' friend and a former volunteer at the sanctuary. "He Dumpster dove. You looked at him and you wanted to hand him money."
Lewis and Baskin both loved animals even before they met. Lewis had owned swans and geese, raccoons, even prairie dogs. Baskin had bred Himalayan show cats, amassing a wall of ribbons and plaques.
Together, they got their first pet bobcat, Windsong, at an animal auction in 1992. One wasn't enough. The way Baskin tells it, the couple found themselves at a Minnesota fur farm staring at 56 bobcat kittens in cages matted with fur and feces. They brought the cats back to a 40-acre parcel on Easy Street in northwest Hillsborough County. They had gotten the land in a foreclosure.
They called their new place Wildlife on Easy Street.
Trouble began to surface once the exotic cats came along. The couple's relationship appeared to suffer, kind of like parents who fight about how to raise their kids.
Baskin wanted to change their mission from breeding and selling exotic cats to rescuing them.
By 1996, Lewis wanted to move the operation to a 200-acre farm he owned in Costa Rica. His wife didn't.
Lewis told Anne McQueen, his assistant of 18 years, that he wanted a divorce. A year later, he walked into the Hillsborough courthouse and asked for a domestic violence injunction against his wife.
"Me and Carole got in a big fuss, she ordered me out of the house or she would kill me," Lewis wrote in court documents. "She has a .45 (caliber) revolver and she took my .357 and hid it."
A judge said there was "no immediate threat of violence" and denied the request.
The last time McQueen saw Lewis, he had argued with his wife and slept in a semitrailer on the property.
"Don did not leave of his own free will," says McQueen, 53, who lives in Tampa. "He loved his money more than anybody, and he would have never left his money."
In August 1997, police found Lewis' van at a Pasco County airport with the keys on the floorboard. He was known to fly out of the country frequently, so police first thought he had just taken a trip. But as the months passed with no sign of Lewis, police flew to Costa Rica, chasing possible sightings. They also searched the wildlife sanctuary in Hillsborough.
Police found no sign of him.
Lewis never touched his $6-million estate again - but his family fought over it. Baskin had documents showing he left her in charge of his estate. Lewis' children were mostly left out of the will except for a previously agreed upon trust.
In 2002, five years after he disappeared, a court declared Lewis dead. Most of his estate went to Baskin.
In 2004, Baskin walked down the beach on Anna Maria Island toward a man dressed like a caveman. She hit him over the head with a plastic bat. He threw her over his shoulder. They exchanged vows in the surf.
The man was Howard Baskin, a semiretired banker with an MBA from Harvard Business School and a law degree.
He has brought a corporate mind-set to Big Cat Rescue, now a $1-million operation with dozens of volunteers. He had the sanctuary's name changed to Big Cat Rescue because Wildlife on Easy Street sounded like a bar. And he brought in corporate sponsors, including a Washington lobbyist.
Big Cat Rescue's annual Fur Ball gala raised $120,000 last month - twice what it did the year before.
The nonprofit sanctuary charges $25 a person for tours. Last year, more than 26,000 people visited and for the first time it turned a profit, of $500,000.
The Baskins plan to use the money to build a wall around Big Cat Rescue since the sanctuary is surrounded by a major mall, a soon-to-be condo development and Veterans Expressway.
But they say the wall likely will not fend off the attacks from other exotic animal owners intent on using Carole Baskin's past against her.
"What will carry her ... is her passion for her mission and understanding that her role unfortunately includes being the subject of these attacks," Howard Baskin wrote in an e-mail.
At the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Detective Chris Fox skims through two volumes on Lewis' disappearance.
It remains a cold case.
Fox says Lewis' trips to Latin America "gave him a very exotic image and opened him up to rumors and questions about everything from drug smuggling and animal smuggling to money laundering and who knows what else. Add in a contentious relationship with his wife."
There have been no tips in the case for years - except one in 2005. It came, Fox says, from another exotic animal owner. A former sanctuary volunteer was now saying she had not witnessed Lewis' will.
Susan Aronoff Bradshaw said that after Lewis disappeared, Carole Baskin asked her to testify that she was there for the will signing when she was not.
Bradshaw, an exotic animal owner in Plant City, said she feared angering Baskin. "Carole's made a big name for herself and I'm a big nobody," Bradshaw said recently.
Fox believes she is telling the truth, but the statute of limitations on the possible perjury has passed. It is also not enough to focus the investigation back on Baskin or Big Cat Rescue.
But Fox is aware of the controversy swirling around Baskin.
"The only inquiries I have received on this case in the past year," he said, "are from people who are business adversaries of Carole Baskin and who hope she will be discovered to be responsible for his disappearance."
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.
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