As a new cast member of season 29 of Dancing with the Stars, Carole Baskin is hoping to show viewers who she really is while continuing her mission of protecting large exotic cats.
In this week's issue of PEOPLE, the Tiger King star, 59, opens up about the Emmy-nominated Netflix documentary series — which shed light on the bizarre world of big cats in captivity — and how the controversy surrounding the show motivated her to both become more focused than ever and join the ABC dance competition show.
“I am not at all the person I was portrayed in Tiger King," says the Big Cat Rescue — a sanctuary for exotic cats in Hillsborough County, Florida — founder. "I am not the money grubbing, gold-digging, murderous person that they portrayed. I am the type of person who will come after any person who is abusing animals. I am relentless. I just won’t stop until I find some legal way to make it stop. From that perspective, I think they got me right. Me as a person, that was a total assassination of my character for nothing other than whatever money they could get for selling that to Netflix.”
"What the show doesn’t show is that I’ve been dealing with death threats and people attacking me for decades," Baskin adds of the series, which raised questions about her involvement with the mysterious disappearance of her first husband, Don Lewis, in 1997. (Hillsborough County Sherriff Chad Chronister told PEOPLE in April that Baskin is “not a suspect.”). "All of these animal abusers know that I am leading the leading sanctuary against [them]. It’s been nothing for them to threaten to kill me or to harm my family."
On the show, cameras captured Baskin’s bitter years-long feud with Joseph "Joe Exotic" Maldonado-Passage over his treatment of animals.
He was found guilty in 2019 for paying Allen Glover $3,000 to kill Baskin and for killing tigers to make room for more big cats at his exotic animal park. He was also found guilty on multiple charges of violating both the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records, and the Endangered Species Act. The disgraced zookeeper filed a lawsuit in March against various government agencies, as well as a former business partner, seeking $94 million in damages.
Maldonado-Passage is currently serving a 22-year sentence in FMC Fort Worth in Texas for his crimes.
For Baskin, who is now embarking on a new adventure with DWTS, the activist says she is more focused than ever.
“I believe that everything happens for a reason and everything happens exactly as it should," says Baskin. "No matter how horrible something may seem, there is something that I may not see that is right on the other side that is going to prove that this is what I needed in order to get to this next place."
"For me, this next place is no more big cats in cages," she adds. "Even though Tiger King has grossly misportrayed me and the entire sanctuary movement and animal protection, the good news is, people are talking about it and they will find out how these animals are being abused and they won’t stand for it. I can’t wait until the day where we can close the doors, tear down those cages and there is absolutely no more need for rescuing exotic cats from horrible situations.”
And Baskin, who describes herself as a “living caricature,” says she’s content with the notoriety, as long as it helps her cause.
“This is all for the cats,” she says.
Dancing with the Stars premieres on Sept. 14 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.
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