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Tampa’s ‘Tiger King’ stars to sell 67-acre sanctuary

Mark Parker



Howard and Carole Baskin. Photo provided.

The expansive Big Cat Rescue, which entered the public consciousness in 2020 with Netflix’s Tiger King docuseries, is now up for sale.

Owners Carole and Howard Baskin announced last week that they agreed to move most of their big cats to Arkansas-based Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. They expect the move and construction of new enclosures at the accredited sanctuary to cost $1.8 million.

Howard Baskin told the Catalyst that the transition would begin in July or August, eventually freeing up 67 acres in suburban Tampa for development. The property sits behind The Plaza at Citrus Park, a sprawling shopping center across the street from the Citrus Park Town Center.

Baskin, 73, said he and his wife have held initial talks with two developers. While he doesn’t expect to formalize a contract until early 2024, he hopes to have a framework in place much sooner.

“Where we’ve had these initial conversations, we’ve said, ‘you know, it’d be nice if in developing it, some consideration would be given to memorializing what was here for 30 years,'” Baskin relayed. “Whether it’s naming the streets or naming the project.”

He added it could also feature a small memorial area for the cats that once lived on the property and that the developers were receptive to the idea.

Baskin said Turpentine Creek sits on 450 acres. Construction on new enclosures for around 35 of the Tampa facility’s big cats is underway.

Baskin said the plan is to keep one tiger and five bobcats too sick to make the trip. The tiger is 23, which Baskin said is “like a person living to 130.”

Max is one of several tigers at Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue. Photo courtesy of Big Cat Rescue, Facebook.

In 2012, eight years before Tiger King and the name Joe Exotic became ingrained in American culture, the Baskins began lobbying lawmakers to introduce legislation banning people from keeping lions, tigers and the like as pets. President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan Big Cat Public Safety Act into law in December 2022.

The legislation also prohibits cub petting, and Baskin said the new law “really changes the landscape.”

He explained that Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado-Passage and a slew of other Tiger King personalities’ cub petting businesses increased the need for rescues – as discarded animals ended up in “people’s backyards.” He said the privately-owned exotic cat population should virtually disappear within 15 years.

“Six, seven years ago, if there was a tiger rescue, the question was, ‘does anybody have room?’” Baskin said. “There’s been capacity freed up … and we’ve always said that our goal was to put ourselves out of business.”

In addition, he noted the exorbitant costs associated with running the Tampa sanctuary. Baskin said annual expenses reach about $1.5 million per year and remain steady despite the decline in animals living at the facility.

While food costs decrease as animals die from old age, he said medical expenses increase as they age. The Baskins spent around $15,000 per cat when the Rescue housed 100 a decade ago, “a pretty reasonable number.”

The cost has jumped to about $36,000 per cat with 41, and Baskin said, “that is not an efficient use of donor funds.” The Turpentine Creek facility could house the animals at a much lower rate and free up valuable, in-demand property.

“Which is worth a number of millions of dollars,” Baskin said. “And then use that money to fund much more of these projects in the wild.”

Big Cat Rescue sits on 67 acres at 12802 Easy St. in Tampa. Photo: Google Earth.

The Arkansas sanctuary is exponentially larger than Big Cat Rescue and Baskin said its owners are “philosophically and operationally almost a duplicate of us. So, this is just a win-win-win,” he added.

Baskin expects a developer to build a mix of single-family houses and apartments or townhomes on the property, as Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa’s comprehensive plan calls for residential zoning. Big Cat Rescue will still exist as a nonprofit with a much larger budget for protecting animals living in the wild.

The Baskins will not employ a broker on the deal but utilize advisors. They may also handle rezoning from the current classification to residential as they have experience with the process.

Baskin said Tiger King’s producers lied profusely to the couple and made their lives “miserable” following the show’s release. However, that notoriety provided a “net benefit” by spreading awareness for the plight of captive exotic animals and the recently passed legislation.

In a previous email regarding the bill, Carole Baskin wrote that Howard “was the real driving force behind passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act.”

“The net has been positive,” said Howard Baskin of the docuseries. “But it has no effect on the land. The land will sell based on what a developer can make developing it.”

RELATED READING: Cat-alyzing: A conversation with Carole Baskin



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