LIES IN NETFLIX “TIGER KING” REGARDING DISAPPEARANCE OF DON LEWIS AND OTHER MISINFORMATION ABOUT BIG CAT RESCUE
When the directors of the Netflix documentary Tiger King came to us five years ago they said they wanted to make the big cat version of Blackfish (the documentary that exposed abuse at SeaWorld) that would expose the misery caused by the rampant breeding of big cat cubs for cub petting exploitation and the awful life the cats lead in roadside zoos and back yards if they survive.
There are not words for how disappointing it is to see that the series not only does not do any of that, but has had the sole goal of being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers. 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. The series presents this without any regard for the truth or in most cases even giving me an opportunity before publication to rebut the absurd claims. They did not care about truth. The unsavory lies are better for getting viewers.
There is no short, simple way to refute so many lies. If you do want to know the truth, it requires understanding the history of events in the years before my husband’s disappearance and the roles and behaviors of the people interviewed in the series, which I have tried to do as concisely as I can below but still requires a few pages.
Other Comments We Have Received
Because it requires so much time to address the disappearance of my husband Don featured in Episode 3 due to the number of false or misleading statements there, before doing that let me address some other mis-impressions people have emailed us about.
Should not be in cages. The good news is that the series appears to have reached an audience that had no clue about roadside zoos and hopefully now see the seedy underbelly of this exploitative and abusive business. It has been interesting to see that some people who have contacted us have complained that animals should not be in cages. We totally agree and our goal is to end having them in cages and have no need for a sanctuary like ours. Our federal bill, the Big Cat Public Safety Act, would stop the cub petting that drives the breeding and end ownership as pets in back yards. See BigCatAct.com.
Cub handling. Find out more about cub handling and what you can do to stop it at CubTruth.com
Let them go free. We have also been asked why we do not let them go free. For that see BigCatRescue.org/gofree.
Crowd size. Others have gotten the impression that the images of a crowd at the sanctuary represent our daily routine. That film is from our once a year event called the Walkabout. The rest of the year our visitors are taken around in groups of no more than 20 on guided tours where they learn about the stories of the cats and the issues they face in captivity and in the wild. BigCatRescue.org/safari-days/
Cage size. Others have gotten the impression that our enclosures are small because they showed a picture of a tiny part of a large enclosure that Joe Exotic falsely claims is the entire enclosure. Our smallest enclosure is the size of a small house, about 1200 sf, and our largest is over two acres, all in a natural setting full of foliage. In contrast, many of Joe’s tigers live in small, barren prison cells on pebbles. We would not be accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, who have the highest standards in the industry if our cages were what Joe falsely claimed. BigCatRescue.org/cages
Suing Joe’s mother. Others believed Joe’s claim that in suing his mother we were trying to harass her and take her house. We never made any claim to her house. We had to sue her because she actively participated with Joe, and later with Joe and Jeff Lowe, to transfer assets into and out of her name, that belonged to Joe or his zoo, in order to hide them from us. We reached a settlement agreement with her where she admitted the long list of fraudulent activities she had participated in and it did not require her to make any payments to us. Shirley Schreibvogel Settlement Agreement & Court Order.
Make money and paying workers. Some viewers not familiar with how IRS approved 501(1)(c)3 nonprofits operate hear Joe lie and claim Carole “makes money” or “profits” from the sanctuary and that we do not pay our workers. Nonprofits have some paid staff. Salaries here are in the 30’s to 60’s. Then they have people who want to do something meaningful for a good cause with their time, so they volunteer their time to help. By definition, volunteers are not paid, they donate their time. All sanctuary income, whether it is from tours, donations, or a gift shop, stays in the nonprofit to support its mission. Carole gets none of that money, just her salary like the other employees. She works 60+ hours/week and didn’t take a paycheck for the first 20 years of the sanctuary. In the first 11 years of the sanctuary she was the largest donor each year. Joe never had volunteers because of the horrible way he treated people.
His statements about not paying our staff or making a profit are idiotic. About 100 people volunteer to help at the sanctuary because it gives them personal satisfaction to donate their time to caring for the animals and helping us end abuse. We also have interns who come from all over the world and spend three months living on property getting an incredible educational experience that builds their resumes. The most recognized nonprofit rating agency, Charity Navigator, which reviews our audited financial statements in detail, gives us their top 4-star rating and a perfect numerical score of 100, something less than 1% of charities achieve.
Cats are in cages so we and Joe are the same? Another idiotic Joe lie. At the sanctuary, we take in abandoned, abused, confiscated, and orphaned cats and give them a permanent home. A sanctuary does not breed, buy, sell, allow people to touch the cats, or put them through the stress of traveling offsite. It is basically a retirement home. Joe Exotic incessantly bred tiger cubs to he could make money charging people to pet and take photos with them. The cubs are torn from their mothers at birth, a torment to any mammal mother and infant. They are deprived of the antibodies in the mother’s milk that prevent disease that bottle formula does not have. There is no tracking of how many die, although some years ago Joe was investigated for the death of 23 cubs. They are deprived of sleep whenever there are customers wanting to pay. They are physically punished to diminish their natural behaviors. For examples of how Joe treated cubs see http://tigercubabuse.com. For more on cub petting see http://cubtruth.com.
Our cats live in large, spacious enclosures in a natural setting full of foliage. Joe’s lived in small barren chain link boxes with pebble floors that are bad for their feet. Our cats receive professional veterinary care in a state of the art hospital with x-ray and ultrasound. Contrast that with videos of Joe playing veterinarian and sewing up wounds on cats on the ground. Our cats receive a lean meat diet specifically designed to include all of the vitamins and minerals a large carnivore needs, not the expired Walmart meat Joe fed that lacks those nutrients. Cats are intelligent and in the wild would be mentally and physically challenged. We provide weekly “enrichment” in various forms that they can play with and have fun tearing apart to make their lives interesting. Joe’s cats just languished in their tiny prison cells. Last, as noted above, we are working to end having cats in cages. Joe bred cats for a miserable life as a petting cub and then a miserable life in a barren prison cell if they survived the cub petting. A statement that there is no difference between Joe’s awful exploitative roadside zoo and an accredited sanctuary because in both cases cats are in cages is another of Joe’s idiotic lies.
Saving them in the wild. In addition to educating visitors about the challenges like extinction facing the cats in the wild, each year Big Cat Rescue donates to conservation projects designed to help preserve the cats in the wild. These are “in situ” projects. In 2019 it was over $100,000. You can see the many species we have supported at https://bigcatrescue.org/insitu/.
SEE WHAT BIG CAT RESCUE IS REALLY LIKE
Now to address Episode 3 that falsely accuses Carole of causing her husband’s disappearance:
The Time Leading up to Don’s Disappearance
In the few years preceding his disappearance Don’s behavior was gradually showing signs of mental deterioration. Originally Don, from time to time, would buy vehicles or other equipment at auctions with a view to reselling them, although mostly he never got around to reselling them. But gradually his hoarding of junk that he brought to the 40 acres the sanctuary now sits on increased and involved junk of no value. He deteriorated into dumpster diving and even got stuck in a dumpster and called me crying because he did not know where he was.
Back then Alzheimer’s was not a commonly used word. I had not heard of it. Someone mentioned Alzheimer’s to me and I got Don to agree to set up an appointment with a specialist, Dr. Gold. Anne McQueen intervened and convinced him to see her psychiatrist, Dr. Blasini. He referred us to a Dr. West in the same building who was not there, so Don saw Dr. Russell. He diagnosed Don with Bi-Polar Disorder and gave him a prescription to have an MRI at St. Joseph’s Hospital. I did not find the prescription until I was searching his bedside table looking for clues to his disappearance.
His behavior became increasingly strange. He started refusing to use the bathroom and defecating outside. He brought in a homeless man to stay in our house. I rescheduled an appointment for him to see the specialist Dr. Gold. But he disappeared before the appointment date.
Everyone repeats the lie that Don was a millionaire when I met him. He had a business cutting the axles off of trailers pulled by tractors and selling the boxes as storage and the axles back Great Dane. If you search the property records you will find he only owned two real estate properties at the time. He may well have been worth six figures and, coming from a very modest background, would have felt he was rich. No one, including Anne McQueen who had access to his books, has ever provided any bank records or other evidence that he had more than that.
One day at the bank he overheard a bank officer say he had a $20,000 loan in default he would be glad to sell for $2000. He got the information and, because he could not read beyond a first-grade level, asked me to look into it. In brief, we bought the loan, foreclosed, and sold the property for a substantial profit. That is what got us into the real estate business. We started buying defaulted loans from banks and going to tax deed sales. This was before this became a popular business. There were few people doing it. With me doing the research, negotiations and title clearing on the properties we built this to a portfolio of properties to rent or resell that was worth around $5 million dollars at the time of his disappearance.
We kept the properties in trusts. During the roughly ten years we were partners before his divorce and our marriage there were properties we bought together and some Don bought on his own or with another woman, Pam. When we married I put all of those I had not worked on into one trust. The ones from our joint efforts were kept in a separate trust. The trust holding the properties I was not involved in was set up with his children as beneficiaries if he passed and called the PRSL Land Trust. I was the beneficiary of the trust holding the properties I was involved in. Anyone can search his name in the public records from 1950 – 1997 to see this is true.
The Main People Interviewed and Their Lies
Anne McQueen is referred to as Don’s trusted assistant. A few months before his disappearance we caught her embezzling roughly $600,000 in properties by buying them with our funds and putting them in her name. A court ordered her to return them. Not the best sign of integrity, credibility, someone to believe. Conservatorship case #97-CP-002001
Wendell Williams. We made a loan to Wendell when he purchased the 40 acres that became the sanctuary. He dug out dirt to sell for construction, digging an 18 acre 30-foot deep hole without our knowing. He then began operating the hole as an illegal dumpsite for construction debris. The hole filled up with water when he hit a spring. He stopped making payments. We foreclosed on him and ended up with the property.
Wendell is a very good con man and Don continued to deal with him despite this. During the time when Don was declining mentally, I repeatedly observed Wendell cheating Don. Don liked to carry a lot of cash. I heard Wendell telling Don, “Remember that two grand you owe me?” and saw Don peeled off two thousand dollars and gave it to him. A few hours later, I saw Wendell do it again, and because of Don’s dementia, Don peeled off two thousand dollars again and gave it to Wendell. I confronted Wendell about it. After that Wendell did everything he could to create a rift between me and Don. There were many, much larger, transactions where Wendell was scamming Don. He was convincing Don he was selling Don real estate properties by handing him paper he said were deeds but were not. Don, who could not read, believed him and would give him cash and checks for amounts in excess of $60,000 thinking he was purchasing property. Conservatorship case #97-CP-002001
Don’s wife Gladys Lewis Cross and daughters Donna Pettis, Lynda Sanchez & Gale Rathbone. I feel for Gladys because every woman in Don’s orbit adored him. He could make you feel like you were the only woman in the world; the only one who understood him; the only one he ever really loved. In the series Gladys makes it sound like she told Don their marriage was over when she found out about me. Don had been unfaithful to her for years and it was well known by her and generally. In the 1998 Dateline / People Magazine article Anne McQueen said she was probably the only woman he didn’t try to have sex with. Even Don’s daughter refers in the series to Don’s condition as being a “sexaholic.”
When Gladys demanded a divorce 1989 there was a man at her church she wanted to marry. So she told Don that if he would give her a quick divorce she would settle for one million dollars. She and the daughters worked with Don to pick properties she would get along with some cash, cars, jewelry and coins. I was told that Don’s oldest daughter Donna Pettis subsequently managed to lose all of it in the stock market in the years that followed.
In 1996, despite their prior divorce settlement agreement, Gladys, who freely accuses me of being “greedy,” filed a suit claiming she was entitled to more. Cross Vs. Lewis 95-DR-005258 Daughters Donna and Lynda testified on behalf of Gladys. Don expected Gale and Anne McQueen to testify on his behalf. Instead they testified for Gladys. At that time Don told me to eliminate them as beneficiaries of the PSRL trust. I did not do so because I felt they were family and over time he would change his mind. To the best of my knowledge, he never spoke to any of them again.
After Don disappeared there were years of my having to manage the properties under a Conservatorship demanded by Gladys and the daughters. The numerous attorneys they involved, all being paid out of the estate, reduced the assets significantly. Ultimately the assets in the PRSL trust, that had the daughters as beneficiaries, went to them. Those assets were worth about $1 million. The assets in the other trust, worth about $2mm by then, came to me. The claim the girls made in the series that I picked the assets they got and that they were bad assets is nonsense. They got the assets from the trust they were beneficiaries of, worth $1 million.
Gladys and her daughters had strong selfish motivations to lie and make implications about the meat grinder and Don being buried on the property 23 years ago that have absolutely no basis in fact whatsoever and they continued to do so in the series.
The Supposed “Circumstantial” Evidence
The series makes a huge deal out of Don having applied for a restraining order that was denied and that the term “disappearance” used in the Power of Attorney document. Both have logical explanations the directors did not explain. Anne’s story about being told by Don to deliver the restraining order application to police if something happened to him does not make logical sense based on her behavior after he disappeared.
The Application for a Restraining Order. Don spent one week per 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. During the week he was away, I would haul off the property as much of the junk as I could. Wendell told Don I was doing this. Don tried calling the police to get them to stop me. They told him he would need a restraining order. It is unclear if it was Don’s idea that to get a restraining order he should say I threatened him or if someone like Wendell suggested that. Don filed for the order on June 20, 1997, and it was denied.
Don disappeared two months later on August 18, 1997. Anne claims Don told her to give the document to the police if anything happened to him. 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. But Anne did not tell the police or me 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. Anne is an embezzler and a liar and her claim that Don told her “if anything happens to me give it to the police” and she simply forgot that until the hearing three weeks later is simply not credible. Later, when Anne was forced to return the embezzled properties, at the end of the negotiations, with the matter now closed, she opened up and told me that she knew all along that the only reason Don applied for the restraining order was to stop me from removing the junk.
“Disappearance” in the Power of Attorney. Don had told me about people going to Costa Rica and disappearing. Our Costa Rican attorney, Roger Petersen, said the Helicopter Brothers were the local version of the mafia and Don was loaning them money. That is why I included “disappearance” as an event that would activate the Power of Attorney. I am sure attorney Joe Fritz is correct that this is unusual. It made perfect sense in this situation given what I was told by Don and by Peterson about Costa Rica and Don’s dealings there at the time.
Flying to Costa Rica. The entire discussion of whether Don’s small planes could fly to Costa Rica was totally irrelevant. The planes could not fly that far and no one ever suggested they could. Don had purchased a number of properties in Costa Rica and after his disappearance one of the caretakers called and told me there were people reporting seeing him there. That is the only reason I urged the police to investigate there. But the series seems to imply I was suggesting he flew one of his planes there.
The Van and Airport. The claim was made by Kenny Farr that the police did not examine the van. It was the police who found the van at the airport, not me. And the mechanic Dale Lively said they came to him because they found his fingerprints in the van. So I have no idea where Kenny got that idea.
The Meat Grinder. This is the most ludicrous of all the lies. As Gladys and the daughters did everything they could to make life difficult for me after Don disappeared, they spread this rumor that they thought I had ground Don up and fed him to the cats. And the media loved it. The meat grinder shown in the video was enormous. Our meat grinder was one of those little tabletop, hand crank things, like you’d have in your kitchen at home, like the one pictured here.
Meat had to first be cut into one-inch cubes like you see here to go through it. 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.
The Office Trailer. The series makes it sound like there was something nefarious about my moving the office trailer to the sanctuary property to secure it. They implied this was wrong because it was “Anne’s office.” The trailer was moved because Anne was spotted taking boxes of records out of the trailer, which she was not entitled to do. Anne was an employee, it was not her trailer. It belonged to our business. I removed it to where I could keep it secure so she could not keep stealing documents. The implication that this was done to keep the trailer from the police is nonsense. I showed the police the Power of Attorney entitling me to move it and invited them to look through it as much and whenever they wanted.
Briefly, Some of the Other People Interviewed
Mark McCarthy operates a horrible roadside zoo in south Florida, one of the places we would like to see not exist. Dennis Hill is the first of the exotic animal abusers to threaten to kill me years ago. Vernon Yates houses animals in small barren cages in St. Petersburg and makes money taking them to venues like restaurant or pet store parking lots. When we find out, we contact the venues like we did with Joe’s malls. Vernon has twice physically attacked me. All three of these animal exploiters have a motivation to lie to make life difficult for me in any way they can. In contrast, Kenny Farr I love like a son. He was someone I could trust to keep Don from getting lost or going into cages with cats that could kill him while I worked. But his estimate that Don was worth 20 million made me laugh out loud. He would have no possible basis for any guess of the value. That was four times what our holdings had ever been worth prior to Don’s disappearance on Aug. 18, 1997.
The Bottom Line
Don was not easy to live with and like most couples, we had our moments. 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 rumors from Costa Rica, and separately I hired a private investigator. 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 demeanor that to make me think that she was not giving us accurate information or hiding anything.”
Why would Eric Goode villainize Carole Baskin? Could it have been her role in outlawing pythons in Florida? The reptile people hated the passage of the bill that greatly restricted their ability to trade in constrictor snakes. Carole was only involved in the bill because it imposed a $10,000 bond on people who kept lions, tigers and other dangerous big cats in backyards across Florida. Prior to passage of the 2006 bill, there was no requirement that these backyard breeders, dealers and exploiters carry any sort of insurance to protect the public in case of attacks or escapes. https://www.facebook.com/notes/captive-wildlife-watchdog/tiger-king-co-director-eric-goode-a-lesson-in-conservation-and-duplicity/2641219252767545/
In contrast to the Tiger King series, if you would like to hear a podcast and read a very well written article that really does delve into the issues raised by Joe Exotic and his cub petting, see Rachel Nuwer’s “Cat People” at https://longreads.com/2020/03/16/tiger-trafficking-in-america/
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