By now, the legend of the Tiger King has taken firm root in enough social media channels that even if there isn’t a water cooler around which to chat these days, it’s a topic that has permeated pop culture. The exploits of Joe Exotic (formerly Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage and born Joseph Schreibvogel) have been given a thorough going-over.
And perhaps the most bizarre cameo appearance in the film: NBA great Shaquille O’Neal, now a TNT broadcaster.
If you missed it, the upshot is that Joe Exotic was a zoo operator, primarily at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma. He was the self-proclaimed most prolific breeder of tigers in the United States and had as many as 90 tigers at his ramshackle zoo at its peak.
But conditions at the zoo were in near-squalor, and Joe Exotic’s life cratered in 2019 when he was convicted of animal abuse—17 federal counts—as well as two counts of a conspiracy plot to murder the chief executive officer of Big Cat Rescue. That was an animal rescue organization for exotic cats that, naturally, was not fond of Joe Exotic’s tiger outpost. He’s in the midst of a 22-year prison sentence for those crimes.
Shaq was ‘Just a Visitor’ at the Zoo
So how did O’Neal wind up with a brief appearance in the seven-part, binge-worthy documentary series on Netflix?
Turns out, according to O’Neal, he was just trying to help with the tigers and did not have a personal relationship with Joe Exotic.
“I was just a visitor,” O’Neal said in his show, The Big Podcast With Shaq. “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.”
In O’Neal’s visit, he plays with tiger cubs and other animals, then takes photos with Joe Exotic. O’Neal said he received a young cub as a gift from Joe. An Instagram photo from November 2014 shows O’Neal posing with Joe Exotic above the caption, “You never know who you can bump into when you’re visiting the park.”
Shaq Recalls Finding Joe Exotic
As O’Neal remembered it, he first came across the tiger park while traveling by bus to Oklahoma City for the Thunder’s game against the Mavericks.
“On the way we see a sign that says ‘Tiger Sanctuary,'” O’Neal recalled on the show. “So we go in there and it’s a beautiful place and the character that was there was Exotic Joe.”
O’Neal donated food for the tigers. It was only later that he found out more about what was going on at the park.
“We went back a couple times,” O’Neal said, according to CNN. “Then we go back another time and we found out that he’s involved with all the stuff and then, actually, I stopped going. I had no idea all that stuff was going on.”
O’Neal said he did watch and enjoy the “Tiger King” series. He also said he was not concerned that he would be painted in a bad light by his appearance.
“People that know me, they know I’m righteous,” O’Neal said. “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.”