Tiger King backstory: A big cat keeper from Kansas reveals what it’s like to hang out with Joe Exotic
With much of the western world under quarantine and all sporting events canceled, America has faced the greatest entertainment vacuum in our nation’s history.
Through these dark times, one piece of television programming has emerged as a great unifying force: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.
The Netflix original series chronicles the bitter and violent rivalry between two big cat keepers, Oklahoma’s flamboyant and charming Joe Exotic and puritanical crank Carole Baskin of Florida.
Without spoiling too much: Joe Exotic is currently in federal prison after being convicted of charges including a murder-for-hire plot to kill Baskin. Meanwhile, Baskin is being dragged on social media for her hypocrisy and the suspicious facts surrounding the unsolved disappearance of her wealthy husband, who many viewers believe she killed and fed to a tiger.
None of this is news to Bettie “BJ” Auch.
“Everybody in this industry talks about it,” Auch says. “We’ve met Joe, and we’ve dealt with Joe. So we follow it more closely, because we know who these people are.”
Though her facility in Louisburg is focused on education and contains a comparatively minor menagerie, Auch was once given a behind-the-scenes tour of Joe Exotic’s roadside zoo by the man himself.
She’s also watched as his rival, Baskin, pushed for legislation that would make it impossible for operations like Cedar Cove to exist — though she counts herself lucky to have never had Cedar Cove come under fire by Baskin, who commands a small army of activists.
“Generally, [Carole’s] not liked by a lot of people, Joe just took it to another level,” Auch says. “Joe would speak out and attack her and so he set himself up for her retaliation, and we try to take the higher road. We don’t discuss these other people and talk about how bad they are. We kind of do on our tours, but we try not to name names. We don’t want to fight with them.”
Auch has not yet watched Tiger King, despite entreaties from her friends and family outside the big cat community. But after watching Tiger King ourselves, we wanted to know more about this intensely odd subculture. So we chatted with Auch for about forty-five minutes on the phone.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Kansas City magazine: So you’ve personally met the Tiger King, Joe Exotic. What’s he like?
Bettie “BJ” Auch: He’s weird, and very full of himself. There are a lot of people in this cat world that have huge egos and they do it because they’re ‘really cool people’ and they ‘get to get in with big cats.’ It’s very ego-driven. I wasn’t very impressed with him at all—or the living conditions of some of the animals that I saw. I can’t give any specifics on cases of abuse but I know he’s been under fire for a long time from PETA and the USDA.
I think his feud with Carole Baskin started because she also has a giant ego and thinks she’s the only one that should be able to have big cats and wanted to get him shut down. One thing led to another and then he—uh, tried to kill her.
Do people in the big cat community dislike Carole Baskin?
People don’t like her because she puts everybody down and she doesn’t believe in interaction with the cats. She thinks she’s the only one that can do this.
Here, we are a USDA-inspected facility and we follow strict rules. We don’t go in the enclosures with any of these big cats, but we do interact with them. They’re cats—they’re big cats, but they’re still cats and in a captive situation. They’re friendly, they want attention, so we try to make sure they feel safe and protected. And we do interact with them.
If you ever come out there you will see that they’re different from other cats you see at the zoo. They seem happy. They seem relaxed. They aren’t alone in a corner. We constantly work to make sure their environment and their enclosures are the best we can possibly afford to do.
Have you personally interacted with Carole Baskin? Has she tried to get you shut down?
I’ve never interacted with her, she’s left us alone. We’re very small compared to what she goes after and we’re really different. We pride ourselves on the lack of ego involved in this and our main goal is education—conservation education.
Ironically, we’ve all been speaking of zoonotic diseases in our tours for quite a long time, that [a virus passed from animals like SARS-Coronavirus-2] is a true risk as the population increases and as our wild areas decrease—this has been this has been a known risk for a long time. People, I guess, didn’t understand it, believe it or think it would affect them at all.
So you haven’t watched Tiger King, but what are you hearing from friends and family?
I actually had a lot of interaction with my nieces who are all, ‘Oh, you’ve got to watch this show!’ And I’m like, ‘No I don’t, because I already know what happened.’ And I’m an animal empath so it’s difficult for me to hear about, much less see, any abuse. My niece told me it doesn’t actually showcases of abuse but we know of them. I’ve also heard that it doesn’t paint either one of them in a very good light.
One of my nieces posted something the other day and I got all over her. She posted about this and then she posted our name in addition to it. I called her and I said ‘Carly, stop this! Don’t associate us with them, we’re or not like them!’ They’re calling me saying, ‘You know this guy? Oh my God, he’s terrible!’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, I do. And I don’t want to talk about him.'”
Well, I’m sorry but I have to ask: What were your dealings with this guy?
You mean Joe?
I’m trying to remember when I met him the first time. Probably at a Feline Conservation Federation meeting when I was first into this, which was eighteen years ago. I started volunteering at Cedar Cove and I wanted to learn more. I may have met him there the first time.
Then, later, we visited his facility and he gave us kind of an inside tour—around 2010, I’d say. He wasn’t as bad as he is now.
I was interested in what other people were doing and I was naive. I just wanted to know what other organizations did and how we were doing compared to them.
And your read on him was just that he’s a kooky guy?
Yeah, and very, very full of himself: He’s the only one that could do this, he’s the only one who could do that. Here, we’re pretty focused on the idea that not one single person can do this. It takes a village, I suppose that’s our motto. It’s all of us, not one person. I wouldn’t hold myself any higher than I hold any of the volunteers there.
He was just—he was weird. And you know, his interactions with the animals were very ‘show-off what I can do’ kind of stuff.
We don’t let people touch. Even if Joe would have come to our facility, we wouldn’t have let him touch a tiger. But I was down there and he’d let us touch anything. He has a low level of concern about safety.
A big part of the show is talking about the culture in the big cat world. It also involves that guy “Doc” Antle in South Carolina.
Yes, I know “Doc” Antle and I know Tim Stark. I’ve met them all. I’m probably the only one here that’s met all of them because I belonged Feline Conservation Federation for a while—it’s kind of like a network of conservationists but it also includes a lot of private owners.
So when I first got started, it was a way for me to learn a little bit more. But our main goal is conservation of these animals. We give tours and we do educational programs. What we talk about when people come visit is conservation of these animals and we really try to encourage people to realize that they need to be in the wild and the reason they’re not in the wild is because of deforestation, primarily. I hope that after this, you know, people come out and visit us.
Right now, this is supposed to be a really busy time of year for us. We have a lot of schools that come out from the Kansas City area and they’ve all canceled this course. So we’re going to struggle a bit [because of coronavirus] but we’ve got a little bit of extra funds, so we hope we’ll be OK.
I gotta tell you, ma’am, you are not going to be hurting for business—as soon as the quarantine is lifted, there are going to be people lined up at your door because of this show. People are going crazy over big cats right now—it’s bigger than Game of Thrones.
If it brings people out to visit, I’m fine with that. We are not like that, so they’re not going to get a drama. We are a very professional organization that prides ourselves on what we do.
Can we go all the way back and you tell me how you got into this?
Cedar Cove was founded by a man named William Pottorff. Billy grew up in the Louisburg area and had a strong love for animals. He did a lot of animal rehabilitation in the local area with, you know, racoons—just our native species, not any exotics.
He served two tours in Vietnam and his passion for the tiger was really ignited when he was there because he saw the wildlife trade and saw baby tigers being sold. He saw people selling tiger parts. There’s approximately thirty different uses for tiger parts in the animal trade world. They make wine out of their bones—anyway, he saw firsthand the effect of that.
And when he came back to the United States, of course, he was a Vietnam vet, and not really interested in working too much with people. So he did a few things, just different types of work.
And then he decided he wanted to build this educational facility. You go to a zoo—and I’m not trying to put down zoos—but I’m not sure when you leave the zoo, how much you’ve learned. You see the animals and you might read a sign about where they’re from. We give tours because we want people to leave with a greater understanding of what’s really happening in this world.
William Pottorff started working on this around 1992, and then he got some land donated to him. He worked with people in the Louisburg area for about six years, getting licenses—Miami county licenses, USDA licenses. He met a variety of different people that he ended up getting cats from and then we opened to the public in September 2000.
I’ve loved cats since I was a little kid. When I was two or three years old—my sisters have helped me remember this because I don’t—Born Free was the first show I ever watched. I just love big cats, I love wild cats, and I always have. There’s been something about them.
When I started out here, it was the lure of the beauty of the animal, really, but now it’s a fight to save them. I mean, there were one hundred thousand tigers a hundred years ago and today there’s less than thirty-five-hundred wild tigers all throughout Asia because they’re losing habitat. You know, you can talk about DNA sequencing, and keeping their DNA, but there’s nowhere to put them. The human population has recklessly deforested the entire earth, pretty much, and they can’t live without viable habitats. So right now, the focus is a fight to educate and to save these animals in the wild because we cannot have a healthy ecosystem without animals—we will die.
I visited Cedar Cove for the first time in August of 2001 with a friend of mine, Steve Klein, who is also now part of this organization. I went back in May of 2002 and began volunteering. I worked underneath in the direction of Billy and Shelly Tooley. Shelly Tooley was also one of the original founders from Louisburg. And we got trained by them. Unfortunately, Shelley died suddenly in 2008 at the age of 49, so that was a big blow to us. Then Billy passed away from a heart attack in April of 2012.
Me and Steve both relocated our lives to live in Louisburg so we could do this. I work full time still and I’m at Cedar Cove on all my off time. Steve gave up his career to live out there permanently. I grew up in Topeka, Kansas. I work for a public accounting firm in Louisburg—I’m an accountant.
So Steve and I have been out there since 2002, basically, and we have an amazing group of volunteers that are dedicated to the same cause that we are.
When you talk about the volunteers. From Tiger King, it seems like all of these big cat operations run with armies of volunteers. In the case of Joe Exotic, he had guys that are going down and getting carcasses to save money or getting expired meat or whatever. In the case of Carole, there’s like a five-year process that they go through before they’re really part of it. It talks about the lure of these animals and how people get involved. Is that something that you guys experience?
We’re a little more intimate than that. We have about twenty core volunteers and we all know each other. We all work very closely together, and we’re a family. We call it the Cedar Cove family. We emphasize that you’ve got to drop your ego at the door. This is not about you, or about you getting to interact with these animals. This is about education of the public and care of the animals. If you think this is about you, and you think that you’re going to go post your interactions on Facebook, you need to leave because our first priority is the animals.
I heard somebody tell me that [in Tiger King] Carole Baskin said, ‘I don’t know who they are until they’ve been there for five years.’ Well, I kind of understand what she’s saying. But for me, it’s maybe like three months. The first day we say hello, but some of us, like me and a few others, work with big cats. And our new volunteers don’t get to work with the big cats. So I come in and I say hello to everybody, and we get started working with the tigers and cleaning and feeding and things like that.
Steve and I are both deep into the conservation. So we also support field operations. He just went to India for two weeks in March and he worked with the fishing cat conservancy over there to restore the mangroves. I went to Brazil in September for two weeks. We encourage all of our volunteers to actually get out in the field. It isn’t just about the animals within our care, it’s about the animals in nature and trying to become conservationists.
We also heavily promote getting out in the field and supporting groups that are on the ground out there to just to protect these animals and to save their wild habitats because that’s what really matters, not what we do in captivity.
How many animals do you have currently, and do you guys have a breeding program or is it rescues?
We do not have a breeding program. We did actually have tiger cubs that were born there in 2005—it was not on purpose, but it happened.
We have twenty-seven animals, and we get them from a variety of places. We’ve gotten them from other sanctuaries. We’ve gotten them from private ownership groups. There are some animals that we have in our care like a leopard who did come from a private ownership situation—we’ve had him since he was six months old, and now he’s twenty.
We have animals from other sanctuaries that donated them to us.
A small example is we have an arctic fox. Apparently there’s a breeder in Indiana that sells arctic foxes to people. Some gentleman had her for six months. If you’ve ever been around a fox, first of all, they’re very skittish. They’re not cuddly creatures, even in a captive environment. Also, their urine smells like skunk, so I’m sure the potty training was not pleasant. So he had her for six months and he couldn’t deal with her anymore.
We have a serval that was a private pet and they couldn’t handle her anymore. Then we have tigers—none of them came from a private organization. Some of them came from where someone needed to downsize or whatever, and zoos won’t take them a lot of the time.
Really, we don’t we don’t try to have a lot of animals. That is not our goal. We want to have enough animals where we have a draw that people want to come see us. But we’re not trying to build some sort of kingdom like Carole Baskin is—where she’s the only one that thinks she can do this.
Tiger King talks a little bit about the fact that there are so many more tigers in captivity in the United States than there are in the wild. It sounds like Joe Exotic himself may have had almost as many tigers in captivity as there are in the wild in Asia.
That’s possible—I never knew how many he had. We rely on people that need us to help them, so we don’t have a breeding program. That’s why we take any opportunity to rescue them from other places. Our goal isn’t to grow our cat population, like I said. Our goal is to educate people and the hooks are the animals to get them out here.
One of the other things in the Netflix show is that lots of these big cat people are polygamists?
Yeah, yep. I met Doc Antle at a convention in Cincinnati and, yeah, I knew he had two wives. I met one of them, Moksha. She’s very nice. And then China is his other one. So I talked to them a lot and I was going to go visit them some time but I didn’t like Doc Antle. I liked one of his wives, she was very nice, and I like some of the other members of the group he was with. I just don’t dig egotistical people. Not in this industry. It’s not about you. So when I see that I just kind of it turns me off. So I didn’t care much for Doc, nor did I care much for Joe.
At these conferences are the people just, like crazy characters?
Yeah, a lot of them are. I was at one conference in particular—and I can’t remember the guys name; I’m not just saying that, I really don’t—but he was from another place in Oklahoma. And he comes in with a plastic tub full of tiger cubs. And literally just dumps them out on the floor for everybody to play with in a big hotel conference room. And I was disgusted by that. That’s like handing your newborn baby to a group of people. They’re more precious to me than that—they’re not commodities. And that’s the way these people view them a lot of times.
And they make money off people playing with them as babies. We had tiger cubs and I didn’t let anybody near them.
I went to a couple of these conferences and I’m like, ‘You know, no, this doesn’t feel like me.’ I’m not saying everybody there is weird, but there were a lot of weird people in this industry. And they don’t like to work together. They all want to be the best.
Were you previously aware of the whole thing about how Carole Baskin’s first husband mysteriously disappeared and she was able to get most of his money?
Yes, I’ve heard that rumor. There’s always conspiracy theories about where he’s buried, whether the tigers ate him. He disappeared. No one found his body so everybody surmises that she chopped him up and fed him to the cats.
Which you think is improbable?
No, I don’t think it’s improbable. I think she would have had to chop him up. I don’t think a tiger would have just eaten a human and fully digested every trace, you know. But it’s completely within the realm of reasonableness that she could have done that. But, I mean, yeah: if you chopped up a human and they’re bloody and it’s raw meat, a tiger would eat it.