The year 2020 will be defined by the coronavirus pandemic. Unprecedented measures are being taken to keep as many Americans as healthy as possible and stop the spread of COVID-19. With most of us trapped inside our homes, the natural draw is to plop down on the couch, bust open a box of Girl Scout cookies, and settle in for a binge-watching marathon on Netflix.
If you’ve been living under a rock, you haven’t heard about the Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. If you’re like the majority of us cats and kittens, you already watched all seven episodes one after another and formulated your opinions on Carole Baskin, Doc Antle, and the incomparable star of the series, Joe Exotic. It’s a must-watch as the Netflix original series received rave reviews and a 98 out of 100 rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
I won’t spoil the plot for you. While the realities of keeping wild tigers, the business of tiger cub petting, and the drug-fueled psychosis of Joe Exotic (his real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage) dominated the plot, one cameo in particular raised eyebrows around the world.
Shaq’s Appearance in ‘Tiger King’
In the very first episode, Joe Exotic’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma is introduced as a place where tigers are kept safe, bred in captivity with care-free lives, and shown love by Joe Exotic and his staff. Among the many visitors was none other than Shaquille O’Neal, a 15-time NBA All-Star and league MVP back in 2000.
O’Neal, however, received backlash as many believed he supported the questionable practices of cub petting and trafficking of wild animals the industry is infamous for.
On The Big Podcast With Shaq, the four-time NBA champion defended his appearance on the Netflix show. O’Neal made sure to downplay any personal relationship fans think he had with Joe Exotic, and he added that he regularly donates to help big cats in captivity.
“So we go in there, and it’s a beautiful place, and the character that was there was Exotic Joe. We’re there and I dropped some donations for the tigers’ foods and all that. We take pictures with [the] tigers. We went back a couple times. Then we go back another time and we found out that he’s involved with all the stuff, and then, actually, I stopped going.”Advertisement
“I don’t harm tigers. I love tigers. I love white tigers. Do I put donations to these zoos to help these tigers out? I do it all the time. Do I own tigers personally at my house? No. But I love tigers. Listen, people are going to make their own opinions, but, again, I was just a visitor. I met this guy — not my friend. Don’t know him. Never had any business dealings with him, and I had no idea any of that stuff was going on.”
— Shaquille O’Neal, via The Big Podcast With Shaq
Does Shaq Own Tigers?
While the Los Angeles Lakers legend doesn’t keep tigers at his home, he’s not shy about his fondness for white tigers in particular and has posted several times on social media around them. (Makes sense considering he starred for the LSU Tigers, known for their mascot Mike the Tiger, during his days dominating college basketball.)
Back in 2015, the New York Post’s Page Six reported that Shaq owned two white tigers that lived on a farm in Jacksonville, Florida with a handler known as “Tiger Dave.” He’d owned the tigers for at least 10 years at that time, but it’s unclear if these tigers are still living there today.
O’Neal has a massive heart to go along with his 7-foot-1 stature. I’m sure he meant no ill-will visiting the Tiger King’s operation, and I doubt his own tigers lived under poor conditions. As the legend of ‘Tiger King’ grows through Netflix, O’Neal defending his appearance is just saving face because, well, everyone else in the show is batshit crazy.
UPDATE (April 2, 2020): After a photograph surfaced on the G.W. Exotic Animal Park’s Facebook page of O’Neal apparently video chatting with Jeff Lowe, who now owns Joe Exotic’s zoo, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) decided it was time to chime in.
In a letter signed by PETA’s Celebrity Relations Manager Rachel Stotts, the organization pressured O’Neal to cut ties with Lowe, who still has an outstanding warrant for his arrest in Las Vegas for animal-related crimes.
Here is the full letter released by PETA in which the organization threatens that, if Shaq continues the apparent friendship, “you will be tied to animal suffering.”
PETA’s Letter to Shaquille O’Neal
Dear Mr. O’Neal,
We saw your statement about not being as involved with Joe Exotic as the Tiger King documentary has made it seem. It appears that the equally problematic wild-animal exhibitor, Jeff Lowe, is now claiming to have your support.Advertisement
Given your disavowal of Joe, we were surprised when this photo was posted on Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park’s Facebook page last week, purportedly showing you communicating with Lowe via FaceTime and alleging that you offered him support.
It’s clear that you love tigers, and we hope you will dissociate yourself from people who profit from abusing, breeding, and exploiting them. Lowe is no different from Joe Exotic when it comes to harming animals.
Lowe has a long history of violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. He continues to tear baby big cats away from their mothers and forces them to interact with the public. There is still an active warrant for his arrest in Las Vegas relating to charges of holding exotic animals and operating a business without a license, following a failed big-cat cub petting venture in that city. And now, thanks to Tiger King, much of the world is knowledgeable about the abuse that exhibitors like Lowe, Joe Exotic, and Doc Antle are responsible for.
Will you please make it clear right away that you don’t desire to have an ongoing relationship with Lowe? As long as he continues to use your name to support his abusive business, you will be tied to animal suffering. Instead, please help these tigers. Help us shut down these hellholes, move the animals to reputable sanctuaries, and keep them out of the hands of abusers.
Celebrity Relations Manager
This article was originally published March 31, 2020. It was updated following the release of PETA’s letter.