While Joe Exotic, denied a pardon by former President Trump, languishes in prison, it’s clear that Carole Baskin is moving on with her life.
Baskin, the founder and CEO of Tampa-based Big Cat Rescue, whose intense, years-long feud with Exotic (legal name: Joseph Maldonado-Passage) was documented in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, the Netflix series that captivated a locked-down world last year, made an appearance on Thursday at the Synapse Summit. The innovation conference normally takes place at Amalie Arena, but was held virtually this year because of the Covid-19 crisis.
In a session titled “Big Cat Rescue: Bringing Animal Conservation to Virtual Reality,” Baskin, along with Doug Fajardo, the CEO of Xennial Digital, envisioned a future where people can interact with lions, tigers, panthers and other endangered species without the need for zoos and sanctuaries like hers.
After greeting attendees with her catchphrase, “Hello all you cool cats and kittens,” Baskin made the case for investing in virtual and augmented reality technology that could reduce the need for exotic animals to be held in captivity.
“My belief is that no big cat belongs in a cage,” Baskin said. “They belong in the wild. And yet the one recurring theme that I hear from people is that we have to have zoos and people have to take their children to see these animals in cages or else they won’t appreciate nature. And I think that our old way of doing things is teaching children the exact wrong message — that it’s OK to hold others captive for our own amusement or education.”
Baskin and Fajardo met at last year’s Synapse Summit, which was held in person, before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States. Their connection has yielded Big Cat Rescue VR, an application for the Oculus Rift headset that lets users immerse themselves in a forest where a tiger is on the loose and in danger of being abducted by poachers. At various spots throughout the forest, users can watch educational videos about tigers and other big cats.
“Our sanctuary is home to about 50 big cats, and we’re on 67 acres in Tampa, but our vision is a world where all wild cats live free,” Baskin said. “And that’s why this meeting is so important to me because Synapse has been such a great partner in helping us reach that next part of our vision.”
Baskin said she first looked into creating a Big Cat Rescue VR experience in 2012 but the technology wasn’t up to snuff at the time.
“One thing that had been done in virtual reality was a dinosaur,” she said, recalling her initial forays into the field. “And I thought, ‘Well, you know, a dinosaur is pretty easy because you don’t have fur, and you don’t really know what they actually looked like, so you don’t have to recreate it.’”
Fajardo said he has struck up a friendship with Baskin and is in touch with her on a weekly basis as they build out Big Cat Rescue VR for other platforms, including the lower-priced Oculus Quest. That version of the app should be available in two to three weeks, he said, adding that developing the program to Baskin’s specifications has been one the most challenging – but also rewarding – experiences of his career.
“We hadn’t really done anything around Carole’s space where we were actually recreating an environment with animals,” Fajardo said. “As Carole said, the hair, the movement of the animal and coming as close as you can to it in a natural way — that’s very difficult to accomplish.”
But accomplish it, they did. The experience is so immersive, in fact, that the user gets to not only learn how to track a tiger in its natural environment, but also use tools to rescue the animal from a poacher’s trap.
“You free it from that scenario and you become really engaged in what’s going to happen to that tiger,” Baskin said. “There’s no way, in any other type of situation, other than really freeing a tiger in the wild from a snare, that you’re ever going to feel like this is something that matters to you. And that’s what I wanted, was for people to really feel like this matters.”