Carole Baskin, the owner of Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue (BCR), currently says her mission is to outlaw the private ownership of big cats. It’s a bizarre mission for a private zoo owner who houses more than 100 tigers, lions, cougars and other exotic cats. And to that end, she’s pals with the Humane Society of the United States—giving HSUS $25,000 this year to sponsor its upcoming “Taking Action for Animals” conference in D.C., to be held in less than one week.
Baskin says that she wants to outlaw ownership so that there would no longer be the need for BCR to shelter big cats. “That’s our ultimate goal,” she says. “To put ourselves out of business.” In the meantime, however, BCR rakes in the revenues – to the tune of $2.8 million in 2013.
BCR partners with HSUS to advance its mission, both pushing regulations such as the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act that would make it difficult or impossible for private individuals to own big cats. BCR is the single biggest “diamond” sponsor of HSUS’s upcoming glitzy Washington DC conference, accessing its extensive lobbying network to help further its goals.
But here’s where the story gets strange. Evidence indicates that Baskin is not what you’d expect from a person dedicated to helping animals.
BCR was formerly known as Wildlife on Easy Street, a for-profit bed and breakfast that let guests snuggle with leopards and cougars. Wildlife on Easy Street was cited for 26 Animal Welfare Act violations in 1998, including failure to provide veterinary care to animals in need, inadequate housing for the animals, and unsanitary grounds. A news investigation also found that the USDA had cited BCR in 2010 and 2011 for issues such as having material near fences that would make it easy for an animal to escape. (As for HSUS, a facility it helps run was cited by the USDA for non-compliances those same years.)
Baskin also admits being for breeding big cats before she was against it, saying at the time “it made perfect sense to me that these animals needed to be bred.” Well, it certainly made perfect financial sense, as breeding allowed her to form the basis of her collection. Now, she says she’s seen the light and is committed to only rescuing neglected big cats. Conveniently, this decision has also made a lot of financial sense. Epitomized by the name change to BCR, the organization has undergone a masterful public relations evolution to portray itself as a rescue operation.
But Baskin’s PR game has been exposed. For example, on her website – next to a big donation button – she claims that one of her tigers was undernourished and stuck in a cage up to its belly in feces before it was rescued. But a video catches her saying just the opposite: that the cat was raised in a loving and nurturing home. His former owner certainly agrees with the latter assessment, saying that the tiger had the run of his house, even sleeping with a pillow and comforter in the living room.
Former employees have also come forward to call out Baskin’s true motives. Deborah Sandlin, a former BCR volunteer, became disillusioned, saying that Baskin is simply “a private owner who found a way to get the public to finance her collection.”
And while BCR claims it’s committed to transparency, it has refused inspection from the Better Business Bureau’s Standards for Charity Accountability, which might uncover its carefully crafted PR image. As a result, the Bureau found that BCR did not meet the BBB’s (lax) accountability standards for charities. (The BBB does not currently have a rating for BCR, and a 2011 news report states that BCR “refused” to be evaluated by the BBB.)
It’s only a matter of time before the public catches on to BCR’s ruse and asks why HSUS is associating with such an organization. As it digs a little deeper, however, it should find that BCR and HSUS are, in fact, perfect bedfellows.
Big Cat Rescue not only is a $25,000 sponsor of this year’s HSUS conference, but it’s been a past sponsor as well. Wayne Pacelle publicly absolved Michael Vick following his animal cruelty conviction–after a $50,000 check from Vick’s then employer, the Philadelphia Eagles. HSUS has taken money from Arthur E. Benjamin, a fellow whose for-profit school was sued by the Justice Department for allegedly defrauding the government. And HSUS has even taken money from a cult leader.
In other words, it seems anybody’s money is green to HSUS.