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U. pays Carole Baskin to promote social distancing in #PrincetonPromise video

<h6>Michael Noonan / Wikimedia Commons</h6>
Michael Noonan / Wikimedia Commons

Earlier today, “Tiger King” star Carole Baskin made an appearance in a video posted on the University’s social media, in which she urged students to refrain from large gatherings and observe public health protocols.

In an email to The Daily Princetonian, Baskin said the University paid a fee for her cameo, “whatever [the standard fee] was at the time.” Though she said she does not recall the exact fee, she speculated it was “probably” $299.00, a figure that corresponds to her publicly listed Cameo fee.

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The 2020 documentary series “Tiger King” catapulted Baskin, a big-cat rights activist and the CEO of Big Cat Rescue, to international fame. Some animal-rights activists, including Baskin herself, have criticized the series, however, for missing an opportunity to highlight the cruelty animals face in confinement, choosing instead to focus on a sensational feud between Baskin and zookeeper Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic.

“I was glad to help encourage people to be safe while raising money for the cats,” Baskin wrote to the ‘Prince.’ The University’s fee was awarded to her as taxable income, she explained, but claimed she would not keep the money: “I donate all of it back to legislative issues to promote our federal bill to ban cub petting and to phase out private possession.”

Big Cat Rescue has lobbied Congress in recent years for the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would prohibit “unqualified individuals” from obtaining and keeping big cats, such as tigers, lions, leopards, and cougars.

Baskin’s organization has experienced financial hardship in the fallout of “Tiger King” and the pandemic, according to Big Cat Rescue’s automated voice message for press inquiries. “We no longer have funding or staffing for tours or outreach,” the message stated, explaining that “half of the staff” had to be let go.

Baskin has also been the subject of controversy surrounding the death of her second husband, Don Lewis. On “Tiger King” and other platforms, Joe Exotic accused Baskin of murdering Lewis, who has been missing for 23 years and was pronounced legally dead in 2002 — an allegation she has repeatedly denied. Exotic was himself convicted this year of murder-for-hire and animal abuse and is serving a 22-year prison sentence.

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The University video featuring Baskin appeared on the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students’ Instagram and was titled “Make the #PrincetonPromise Today.” Aside from Baskin, the video included three current students declaring the “Princeton Promise,” framed as a vow of personal responsibility to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Students on camera vowed “not to host large gatherings,” “participate in testing if necessary,” “not to visit University facilities that are not open to the general public,” and “follow all social distancing and public health guidelines.”

Undergraduate Student Government President Chitra Parikh ’21 was one of the three students featured in the video. She told the ‘Prince’ she was not paid for her appearance in the video. Parikh also stated that she was not aware that Baskin would be included in the video.

The mission of the video, in Parikh’s understanding, was to “promote safe, socially distant, and healthy behavior as a community wherever Princeton students are this semester.”

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“Now more than ever, it is imperative that we all share in the responsibility for keeping our community safe,” Assistant Dean Bryant Blount ’08 wrote in an email to ‘Prince.’ “This video marks the launch of the #PrincetonPromise campaign, which encourages students to follow University and public health guidelines for COVID-19 — not only for themselves but for the communities in which they live. Look for more #PrincetonPromise messages soon.”

Addressing students as “cool cats and kittens” in the video, Baskin said, “I want you guys to remember the hashtag #PrincetonPromise by adhering to the health guidelines and being responsible for the neighborhoods that you live in.”

“Other people, when they see you being careful and responsible, that can influence them to be careful and responsible,” she added.

Head News Editor Zachary Shevin ’22 contributed reporting.

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