As It Happens

Tiger cub breeder 'Joe Exotic' accused of taking out a hit on Florida woman

Controversial zookeeper and 2016 independent presidential candidate "Joe Exotic" has been indicted for allegedly hiring two people to kill an unnamed woman in Florida. Carole Baskin, the head of a big cat sanctuary in Tampa, believes she was the target.

Animal rescuer Carole Baskin says she was his intended target

This photo provided by the Santa Rose County Jail in Milton, Fla., shows Joseph Maldonado-Passage, an Oklahoma zookeeper, who was indicted on federal murder-for-hire charges. (Santa Rosa County Jail via Associated Press)

Joseph Maldonado-Passage — also known as Joe Exotic — is an eccentric zoo-keeper and sometime-U.S. presidential candidate from Oklahoma. He's made a living breeding tiger cubs to take around shopping malls in America's mid- and southwest for people to pet.

Now, he is facing charges of hiring hitmen to kill a woman in Florida.

Court records don't list an attorney for Maldonado-Passage, who didn't immediately respond to an Associated Press email seeking comment.

The woman has not been named in court documents, but Carole Baskin says she was Joe Exotic's intended target. She runs the animal sanctuary Big Cat Rescue in Tampa.

She spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off. Here is some of their conversation.

Ms. Baskin, we know there has been tension, to say the least, between you and Joseph Maldonado-Passage for a very long time. But did you ever expect to see him indicted for taking out a hit on you?

I wasn't at all surprised that he was trying to kill me. I've known that for a long time. But I was very surprised that he actually got caught.

Big Cat Rescue sanctuary founder Carole Baskin walks the property in Tampa, Fla. Big Cat Rescue is a nonprofit sanctuary committed to humane treatment of rescued animals, often coming from exploitative for-profit operations. (Loren Elliott/Tampa Bay Times via Associated Press)

I was really kind of startled that they were able to gather enough evidence to have the arrest made because these people are constantly threatening me — on social media, and in person, and through email, and text and everything else. But they've just never gotten caught before.

So it was wonderful that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the F.B.I. and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Oklahoma, and the U.S. Marshals Service all actually took this seriously and followed through on it.

When you say "these people," who are these people, and what kinds of threats have you had?

Joe Exotic is just one of a handful of people who are in this network of backyard breeders and private-zoo owners who are constantly breeding lion and tiger cubs for use as "pay-to-play" props — where they charge people $20 to have their picture made with a cub.

And so that group of people sees me as a threat to their industry because I speak out against that activity, and have gotten a lot of undercover footage and photos and video of the abuse that those animals suffer, and I've shared that online.

So that has created this target on my head.

Joe Exotic is the name Mr. Maldonado-Passage gives himself. What has alarmed you the most about what has been posted online about you?

The threats that Joe Exotic has made online have included shooting a blow-up doll dressed to look like me. He's posted pictures of holding a gun to the head of a mannequin dressed like me that was hanging.

He loves to post video of himself blowing things up, and will frequently say, "This is for that 'expletive' in Florida." He doesn't always call me out by name, [he] usually refers to me in a veiled way.

So I've been dealing with that since 2010 from him, and for the last 20 years from others like him.

A tiger named Andy wades in a pond at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla. (Loren Elliott/Tampa Bay Times via Associated Press)

The prosecutors do not name the target of this alleged hit in their court filings. They refer to the person as "Jane Doe." How are you so sure that it's you?

Anybody who talks to Joe Exotic for five minutes will figure out that it's me because he can't stop raving about me. It's so bizarre to me because there are other organizations that protect wild animals, like PETA, and The Humane Society International, and Zoocheck in Canada.

But they usually don't target big organizations. These backyard breeders have selected me as the target because, I think, I'm a little more outspoken personally.

Over the years, a number of people have contacted me saying that he had tried to hire them to kill me.- Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue sanctuary

In this indictment, have you learned what Mr. Maldonado-Passage allegedly was attempting to do in order to kill you?

The indictment says that he tried to hire two different people — one being an undercover agent —  to travel to Florida to kill me.

Over the years, a number of people have contacted me saying that he had tried to hire them to kill me. Every time that happens I turn it over to law enforcement.

I tried to get a restraining order here in Florida, but in our county, you have to have been physically struck by the person twice before they'll issue a restraining order.

It must be extremely difficult to live with these kind of threats. What drives you to try and protect these animals?

These cubs that they rip from their mothers, and deprive of the food and the sleep and nutrition that they need — and then pimp them out to people that will pay $20 to have their pictures made with them — those cubs are absolute innocents in this scheme.

And nobody is willing to get out there and take the risks that I've been willing to take to show what's going on behind the scenes, and how those cubs are being treated with such abject cruelty.

As long as we don't speak up, they continue to do those abusive things to these animals.

Written by Ashley Mak and Kevin Ball with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Ashley Mak. Q&A edited for length and clarity.