I feel compelled to set the record straight. It’s pretty heady stuff to be cast as the heroine in the Carole VS Joe saga that recently rolled out in New York Magazine and Wondery’s Over My Dead Body podcast, but it’s not about me and it’s certainly not about Joe. Writers are taught there are 7 story archetypes and number one on the list is: Overcoming the monster. In these stories, this is where the hero must destroy the monster to restore balance to the world. Journalists keep telling me they have to keep it simple. You have to have one monster and one hero because it’s believed that most people can’t follow a complicated story line.
In the course of being interviewed for many months, and in some cases as long as five years, by story tellers I wanted to be sure they knew the full story, not only from my perspective but from so many others who have been instrumental in bringing us to this day where a cub pimp is now confined to a cage. I went into great detail emphasizing that Joe Exotic is just one tiger killer in a network of people who traffic in big cats and their cubs. He was just one blip on our radar. There are 231 “bad guys” in our opinion who have warranted their own rap sheets at the 911AnimalAbuse.com site. Of those about 8-12 we consider the worst and we never fail to mention the way they continue to mislead the public, exploit wild cats and evade being held accountable for their actions.
Essentially, they are all the same as Joe Exotic. They make money by charging people to interact with big cats and their cubs. They lie and call it conservation when none of the cats will ever go free and none are purebred species, traceable back to the wild, and thus are not able to save the species even in captivity. They have to have a steady stream of cubs, because by the time a cub is about 3 months old, it is too dangerous for cub handling. They have no legitimate way to dispose of last months’ cubs so they dump them any way they can; with the most lucrative ways being into the black market for their parts. Some are rumored to kill and incinerate them on site, but it’s hard to prove because they run their cults the same way Joe did. They use coercive control and separate the people from their friends and families so they can control the interactions that would expose them.
The government does almost nothing to stop the abuse. In most cases they are providing cover by issuing licenses and permits each year, even while the facilities are not in compliance with the existing meager laws. The licensees make the case that they must be good, or they wouldn’t be permitted to do what they do. The public has no idea how wrong that is. Since 2017 inspection reports have all been redacted to the point of being totally indecipherable, so even those who would expose the evil doers have been hamstrung. About the only time there is any justice for exotic cats is when some whistleblower calls them out in the press, or when some non profit organization files suit against the abusers. Even then, the legal process is expensive, ridiculously slow and weighted in favor of the wrong doers. By the time help arrives via a seizure of animals, far too many have suffered and died.
I’m glad our society now recognizes that those who speak out for these voiceless cats are not crazy. It wasn’t that long ago that I was treated that way by the media. Despite all of the evidence of the evil detailed above being delivered to the press, I felt that most quotes attributed to me were just so they could say they had done a “balanced” story. How I hated that term! There is no “balance” when you are reporting animal abuse. No one has a right to harm and harass a cat for their own profit or pleasure. Thankfully the tide of public opinion has turned now that the public knows more about what happens behind the scenes in zoos, back yards and basements where big cats are held. The vast majority of stories now will even shame celebrities for their witless participation in cub photo ops. I’m glad to see this change.
What I’m not glad to see is the documentarians painting me as the hero who overcame the monster. I may have said it louder and longer than most; that cub petting is the basis for what I believe to be 99% of the abuse suffered by big cats, but I’m not the first. Long before our tiny sanctuary became a substantial factor in this fight to save big cats, there was the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Animal Welfare Institute, Born Free, World Wildlife Fund and many, many others. They are still working along side us to bring this shameful chapter of animal abuse to a close and we absolutely can’t do it without their help.
Where I feel most embarrassed by all of the attention though is within our own organization. I could never have had the time to research and report on the horrible people who were pimping out cubs if not for my daughter, Jamie Veronica Murdock, taking a leading role at the sanctuary. She was making sure the animal care here was done professionally and from the heart. That’s why all our animal care is done by volunteers, who are here for one reason alone: they love the cats and want to help give them the best lives possible. Because Jamie created our volunteer and intern programs it provided me with a team of more than 100 extremely well trained people to care for the cats every, single day. In addition to that she created our first gift shop, online store and newsletter that keeps us connected to our support base. With Jamie overseeing the animal care I never have to worry about it.
My mother, Barbara Stairs, ran the real estate businesses for me and for the sanctuary and handled all of the books for 20 years (1997-2017). That enabled me to just do the parts I do best (finding the deals and investing) and I didn’t have to worry about the mountains of paperwork and accounting that go along with proper management. Gale Ingham took over this role in 2017. My father, Vernon Stairs, spent his last 20 years (1996-2016) making sure all of the cages were built to be safe and yet as natural as possible for the cats. He kept everything at the sanctuary and in the real estate businesses working and in good repair. Now Jamie and Victor Alonso oversee the maintenance.
When Howard Baskin joined us in 2003 he brought a level of business acumen I did not possess. He first went to work finding ways to increase the funding for the sanctuary so that it would free us up to to the important work of ending the abuse at its root. We were never going to be able to rescue our way out of the mess being created by those who were constantly breeding big cats and discarding of the juveniles as soon as they passed from asset to liability. It was because of his success in fundraising and cultivating good will in the community, that we were financially able to hire Julie Hanan to help alert reporters as to the pain and suffering inflicted on big cats that were used in circus acts, cub petting schemes and off site exhibits.
As we saw the shift begin to take place in the headlines from the media glorifying cub petting to them starting to question the practice, we were able to hire Susan Bass to take over when Julie moved to Colorado. Susan was able to dedicate so many more hours to respectfully educating reporters, malls, fairs and other venues than I ever could. She brought with her a background in marketing and writing skills I do not possess. So many of the articles and quotes attributed to me have actually been either entirely written by Susan or Howard, or they have edited my words to make me sound a lot smarter and less confrontational than my true nature.
When Joe started using our name and logo and copyright protected images, I showed Howard. He took it from there. Howard and I have mused many times over the past 8 years that Joe never gave Howie the credit and now those documenting the drama have failed as well to give credit where due. This is despite the fact that I always tell this same story:
Howard Baskin hired the attorneys, filed the lawsuits, reviewed thousands of documents and offered a perspective where his keen legal mind excelled. Howard is the one who gathered evidence and attended most of the hearings and in 2016 was the one who hammered out an agreement that Joe would stop breeding and exploiting big cats. Joe backed out of that deal when Jeff Lowe stepped in and said he’d save the day. I attended one deposition, one hearing on assets and operated as a sounding board to Howard, but that’s pretty much it. My name is on the pleadings because of my role as CEO, but I can’t take credit for any of it.
As for saving my life; the credit goes to Howard there too. I just cannot stand to be lied to and I think if Joe’s mouth is moving; he’s lying. I couldn’t bear to listen to his whiney voiced rants, but every night, as I was winding down on the couch with the cat, I could hear Howard, in his office on the other side of the kitchen, suffering through Joe’s taunts online. Howard was gathering evidence and where there were overt threats by Joe against me, Howard would painstakingly document each one and pass it on to law enforcement, even though they never seemed to care. When whistleblowers contacted me about threats on my life, or animal abuse, I just turned them over to Howard, who would help them write up their experiences for law enforcement.
The support I’ve been given by our staff, volunteers, donors and those who join us in our advocacy is immeasurable. A special shout out to Jennifer Leon who has pretty much taken over my role in creating the advocacy alerts for animal protection measures. She writes with much more eloquence and depth of understanding of the particular measures and has been effective in moving our patrons to speaking out. We wouldn’t be so far ahead of previous years’ work in pressing the Big Cat Public Safety Act toward law, if not for her and Lauren Buckingham, and LaWanna Mitchell getting people to make the “call of the wild” where they actually phone their members of Congress and ask them to champion this bill that ends cub abuse.
All of the management of the sanctuary, by the following dedicated staff, makes it possible for Big Cat Rescue to be heralded as a premier sanctuary for exotic cats. They have worked to give us the credibility necessary to be sought out as a resource by the press and government agencies. All volunteer management falls to Kathryn Stapleton, who is assisted on the Keeper side by Afton Tasler who also is responsible for producing videos that entertain and engage. On the Partner side she is assisted by Aleesa Salcido and Karma Hurworth, who also manage the gift shop and Karma also handles the foster kitten program. We wouldn’t have trained volunteers and interns if not for Chelsea Feeny and we wouldn’t have online sales if not for Brittany Mira. Our donors feel loved and respected thanks to the diligence of Barbara Nicholas and Katie Nikic. We wouldn’t have a website if not for Ysabel Cruz keeping us safe from the barrage of online attacks we have suffered for speaking out. Thanks to Holly Kopacz we are able to reach new people with augmented reality in two malls and more to come.
While I’ve named some people in our organization outright, I still haven’t named the fine people on our board of directors who ensure that we are transparent and fiscally responsible. I haven’t named the volunteer committee, which deals with all of the development and enforcement of our policies. Our vets, Dr. Liz Wynn and Dr. Justin Boorstein, have served the cats here for so many years with unwavering reliability. All of those people are named here though: https://bigcatrescue.org/about/our-staff/ And these are just the people at this end of the equation.
In the trenches, fighting every day to give nature a voice, are all of the people who help educate and influence the masses about issues such as the cruelty involved in cub petting, breeding wild cats for life in cages, and the necessity of protecting habitat to benefit all of us. Those who have been instrumental in our social sites deserve the spotlight but are too numerous to list, for fear of missing even one of them. More and more the media and policy makers are figuring out which team is going to win and is making sure they are on the right side of history. There are literally millions of these people who are changing the world and making a difference.