The Tiger King Saga Finally Ends: The Intellectual Property Story

By Shane Wax

In case you missed it, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness debuted on Netflix this Spring and caused quite a stir. The docu-series explores the life of the now infamous “Joe Exotic,” a real life Oklahoma showman and fanatic who owned the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (a.k.a. the “G.W. Zoo”), known for its collection of big cats, before he was convicted on nearly 20 federal charges including violating the Endangered Species Act by selling and killing endangered species of tigers, as well as attempting to hire someone to murder his arch nemesis, Carole Baskin.  Baskin is also featured heavily in the Netflix show, and is the subject of rumors, pushed by Joe Exotic, that she caused or was involved in her husband’s 1997 disappearance.

While Tiger King’s tale, involving not only murder and animal rights, but also polyamorous cults, drug use, criminal investigations, political campaigns and, yes, even country music videos, made for great entertainment for throngs of people quarantined at home, a side-story to the whole captures our attention: a multi-pronged intellectual property dispute which led to a bankruptcy-causing $1 million damage award and the transfer of G.W. Zoo to Carole Baskin.[1]

Without spoiling the plot of the Netflix show, the intellectual property dispute between Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic centers around the name of their respective big cat-focused properties – Big Cat Rescue, Baskin’s animal sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, and Big Cat Rescue Entertainment, a commercial zoo in Oklahoma, respectively.

Baskin operates Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit animal sanctuary formed in Tampa, Florida in 1992, whose stated mission[2] is to end the abuse of big cats in captivity by rescuing, housing and rehabilitating and injured or orphaned exotic cats.  Part of Big Cat Rescue’s business model involved selling sanctuary tour slots and gifts to members of the public; that is, while the public was not free to roam the sanctuary because it is “not a zoo,” they are nevertheless able to pay for access to see the exotic animals housed at the sanctuary.  In 2010, Joe Exotic created Big Cat Rescue Entertainment as a traveling extension of the G.W. Zoo.[3]

In January 2011, Carole Baskin first sued Joe Exotic for trademark infringement in federal court in Florida, alleging that Joe Exotic’s company’s name was adopted with the intent to capitalize on Baskin’s enterprise and to cause confusion. (“Big Cat I”)[4]  In addition to adopting a confusingly similar trademark, the Complaint alleges that the logo for Joe Exotic’s “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment” incorporated an image of a snow leopard featured on the sanctuary’s own website, and that Joe Exotic adopted a “Florida Office” with a Florida-based phone number with the same Tampa-based area code as the sanctuary, to further add to the confusion.

Just eight months after Carole Baskin initiated the trademark lawsuit, she filed a second lawsuit against the same defendants for copyright infringement (“Big Cat II”),[5] which centers around the use of a photograph featuring three women in a golf cart holding dead rabbits, which was published by Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue, including on its website, and which, later, was allegedly re-published by Joe Exotic’s team, including in videos posted to YouTube.  The Complaint also seeks damages for copyright misrepresentation under Section 512(f) of the Copyright Act, which makes it unlawful to knowingly misrepresent that material is infringing.  Then, a year later, a second copyright infringement suit was filed over three additional photographs and two videos taken from Big Cat Rescue’s social media pages and repurposed by Joe Exotic and company as part of his anti-Carole Baskin media campaign (“Big Cat III”).[6]

Joe Exotic shot back by filing counterclaims in the trademark action alleging libel over various statements Carole Baskin made accusing Joe Exotic and the GW Zoo of animal abuse and cruelty.  The cases were litigated contemporaneously and contentiously, including multiple discovery disputes and motions for sanctions, before a pair of summary judgment decisions played a crucial role in resolving the case on consensual terms.

On January 11, 2013, the court granted partial summary judgment in the copyright case, finding no dispute that the plaintiff had a copyright in the photograph at issue and that Joe Exotic had “posted the photograph on the Internet twenty-one times,” but finding questions of fact as to whether fair use was a defense against the otherwise proven infringement.[7]  On February 8, 2013, the Court granted Plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment, finding that there was no evidence of any actual reputational damages to Joe Exotic or his companies and dismissed the defamation counterclaims in their entirety.[8]

On the verge of complete defeat in the courthouse, Joe Exotic relinquished in both cases.  In connection with the trademark case, Big Cat I, Joe Exotic and the G.W. Zoo agreed to a permanent injunction against using the name “Big Cat Rescue,” and agreed to pay Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue sanctuary $653,000 in compensatory damages plus $300,000 in attorneys’ fees.[9]  In connection with the copyright cases, Joe Exotic and G.W. Zoo agreed to a permanent injunction against using all the photographic and audiovisual content in question and against representing that they owned the photograph at issue in Big Cat II, and further agreed to pay statutory damages in the total amount of $75,000 to resolve Big Cat II,[10] and thus raising the total monetary award to just over $1 million, including attorneys’ fees.

However, efforts by Big Cat Rescue to collect that award from Joe Exotic and Co. were unsuccessful for years.  Joe Exotic tried to transfer funds to a new entity, the Garold Wayne Zoo, but a federal judge saw through the smokescreen.  Later, the G.W. Zoo filed for bankruptcy, putting another thorn in the side of collection efforts.

But the years long affair finally looks like it is concluding as, last week, a federal bankruptcy court ordered the G.W. Zoo – including the real property, physical property and animals – be transferred to the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary to satisfy the Consent Final Judgment.[11] Meanwhile, Joe Exotic can ponder his next music video from his federal prison cell.


[1] See Press Release. “Joe Exotic” Sentenced to 22 Years for Murder-For-Hire and for Violating the Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office, W.D. Oklahoma, Jan. 22, 2020, available at:



[4] Big Cat Rescue Corp. v. Big Cat Rescue Ent. Grp. Inc., No. 8:11-CV-0209 (M.D. Fla)
(“Big Cat I”).

[5] Big Cat Rescue Corp. v. Big Cat Rescue Ent. Grp. Inc., No. 8:11-CV-2014 (M.D. Fla)
(“Big Cat II”).

[6]  Big Cat Rescue Corp. v. Big Cat Rescue Ent. Grp., Inc., No. 8:12-cv-2381 (M.D. Fla.)
(“Big Cat III”).

[7] Order, Big Cat II, e-Docket No. 60 (Jan. 15, 2013).

[8] Order, Big Cat I, e-Docket No. 157 (Feb. 8, 2013).

[9] Consent Final Judgment and Permanent Injunction, Big Cat I, e-Docket No. 160 (Feb. 11, 2013), available at

[10] Consent Final Judgment and Permanent Injunction, Big Cat II, e-Docket No. 75 (Feb. 14, 2013), available at; Consent Final Judgment and Permanent Injunction, Big Cat III, e-Docket No. 19 (Feb. 11, 2013), available at

[11] See Maria Cramer, Judge Gives Carole Baskin the Tiger King’s Zoo, N.Y. Times, June 2, 2020, available at