Alas, “The man, the meth, the legend,” Joe Exotic, a former Oklahoma zookeeper, now federal inmate, isn't the country music star we were led to believe. Like Toby Keith, he’s hoisted as Oklahoma’s next great country music sensation, but he can’t sing or play the guitar whatsoever. He lip-syncs in the videos and tippy-toes through faint singalongs at gigs such as his husband Travis’ funeral.
Exotic and The Clinton Johnson Band connected on Craigslist and, the band says, they wrote and recorded the now YouTube hits such as “I Saw Tiger” and “Here Kitty Kitty.”
Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, is Exotic’s archenemy. In a public, venomous feud — the size of Trump and CNN's — the pair have traded blows on the internet for years. Big Cat Rescue had a music video first. In episode 2, we see Baskin and husband-on-a-leash Howard sitting on the couch with Tiger King director Eric Goode in a chair to the right. They’re in a living room for a screening of Big Cat Rescue’s official music video. Howard’s in his park ranger browns and Carole is in a cat print blouse with her signature flower crown, which is a look that’s certain to dominate the runways as soon as Fashion Week resumes everywhere.
As the video begins, Carole boasts, “We’re kinda popular,” and the lovebirds burst with laughter.
Near the end of the screening, Carole sensually brushes Howard’s inner thigh with her hand and viewers consider that in a moment of tiger passion, the couple might go at it right there on the couch. Goode has a slight look of befuddlement, so we know we're not alone.
Big Cat Rescue’s theme song is “Beautiful, Wild and Free” by Terez Hartmann, artistically known as Terez Firewoman, a percussionist, pianist, vocalist, belly dancer and life coach. Hartmann wrote and recorded “Beautiful, Wild and Free” in 2009 and didn’t know Baskin at the time. They had common friends from Tampa through meditation and positive-thinking groups.
“I initially wrote the song as an anthem for nature,” Hartmann tells the Observer. “Then a friend of mine showed it to Carole and they liked it. I wasn’t contracted or paid, I was a new artist and people liked my music ... Awesome, whoopee! We decided to create the video, and they gave me full run on the park. Along with their video guy, it was a combined effort, and being clueless I did what came naturally at that time and made the video.”
Hartmann’s assessment of the video is critical and admits she would do a lot of things differently if given the chance. She would prefer footage in which none of the cats are in cages, because she loves stories about animals going back to the wild. And she would replace all the green-screen cheese with herself seated at a grand piano — something classier.
That video was created and released in 2010. Initial feedback was mixed, some was good, and there were plenty of nasty comments as well.
“I perform all over Florida at clubs like Blue Martini and resorts like Universal Studios and the Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater Beach," Hartmann adds. "It’s amazing. ... I know those audiences aren’t going to slap my baby. But then I did that video and some of the negative comments were shocking. I realized I might not be ready for criticism.”
A friend encouraged Hartmann to keep pushing and not give a damn what the critics think, to do like the lyrics of her ballad, by being “beautiful, wild and free.” That approach proved timely for Hartmann, because the documentary, and her song, was headed for Netflix and their 167 million subscribers.
The music video lives on the Big Cat Rescue YouTube page with its 1.6 million subscribers. The comments section is open and a new wave of Tiger King opinions are coming in:
“The quarantine anthem we all needed. Thank you Netflix.”
“How is this not satire.”
“I can't believe this never went viral before?”
“Beautiful maybe, but not wild or free.”
“It is fascinating (and kind of hilarious) to see how much the internet has changed by simply comparing the comments from 9 years ago to the comments from the last few days.”
“This is Napoleon Dynamite's favorite song.”
Coincidentally, Hartmann lives just a few blocks from Big Cat Rescue but hasn’t returned since shooting the video nine years ago. She randomly ran into Howard at the mall but doesn’t regularly speak with the Baskins. Hartmann did call Carole after she was contacted by the film production company about using the music video.
“I didn’t know anything about Tiger King or how big it was going to be, but I was paid $4,000 and donated $1,000 of that to Big Cat Rescue. It was because of them [Big Cat Rescue] that this happened and I wanted to help the cats,” Hartmann says.
Like Exotic, Baskin has an array of problems of her own, like the suspicious disappearance of her second husband, Don Lewis. Baskin met Lewis when she was just 19 on Nebraska Avenue, which is like the Harry Hines of Tampa.
As depicted in the docuseries, Lewis, a millionaire, famously disappeared in 1997, six years after their marriage. Baskin would eventually become the beneficiary to his $5 million fortune. Many Tiger King viewers suspect Baskin was practicing the world’s oldest profession on Nebraska Avenue, and most believe she is responsible for Lewis’ death, at least measured through memes. On March 30, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office reopened the 23-year-old missing-person case.
Hartmann’s opinion of Baskin is positive; she isn’t buying the image of Baskin as a cold-blooded killer but does think she should've taken the high road with Exotic.
“I don’t know anything about the crazy dude [Joe Exotic], but they both did the same thing and she kept returning fire. If the person on the other end is so far gone, then focus on what you have going on," she says. "It will keep going on and on. Then you're punching each other in the face, then you’re getting out knives, next grenades and then there’s a mushroom cloud.”
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Hartmann fits in with the cast of Tiger King in that she’s eccentric but is different because she has a conscience. She’s decidedly different from Exotic — for starters — because she can play instruments, is a real musician and can actually sing. Surprisingly, she hasn’t watched the Netflix hit in its entirety, but being close to the scene, she’s aware of the chaos.
“I would like to express appreciation to the directors for giving my video so much time," Hartmann says. "They did me a favor, but no, I haven’t watched it. As a rule, if I watch something, I want to feel better.”
In rhythm with Tiger King’s popularity, Hartmann is debuting a remix of “Beautiful, Wild and Free” below: