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‘Tiger King’: The story behind Shaq’s relationship with Joe Exotic

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As people around the world are quarantining in their homes due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the need for a distraction from the horror of the real world is at an all-time high. For many people, that distraction is Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, a new mini-series on Netflix that has risen…

As people around the world are quarantining in their homes due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the need for a distraction from the horror of the real world is at an all-time high. For many people, that distraction is Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, a new mini-series on Netflix that has risen to become the platform’s most viewed show this week.

Everything about Tiger King is certifiably bonkers. The show’s main character is Joe Exotic — an Oklahoma man who runs his own roadside zoo while shooting guns, rocking a mullet, navigating his marriage to two different men, recording his own country music songs and videos, producing a struggling reality show, and allegedly plotting to murder his long-time rival. As if that wasn’t enough, every other character in the show’s orbit is nearly as outrageous as Exotic. The show even features a sports tie-in, albeit a brief and confusing one.

Shaquille O’Neal shows up just 30 minutes into the first episode. O’Neal is shown walking around Exotic’s G.W. Zoo and holding tiger cubs. He gives Exotic a shout-out on TNT’s Inside the NBA during a playoff series between the Thunder and Warriors and says “I got two more tigers.”

O’Neal’s knowledge and passion for exotic animals, particularly tigers, is fairly well known, but his appearance on the series feels even more surprising as the plot eventually dovetails into its most shocking elements. In a podcast appearance earlier this week (around the four-minute mark), O’Neal talks about how he came to visit the zoo and says he stopped going once he found out about the legal trouble Exotic was in.

This is the history between O’Neal and Exotic.

O’Neal appeared on Exotic’s internet reality show

One of the show’s running subplots is the filming of Exotic’s internet show — Joe Exotic TV — as he struggles to get a more traditional reality show launched on television. Basically everything that was happening at his zoo was filmed because of this, including O’Neal’s visit.

This clip from May 29, 2014, currently has just over 7K views. O’Neal gets to meet various zoo animals, poses for pictures, and suggests one big cat be renamed “Shaq”.

O’Neal even showed up on the zoo’s Instagram page from this visit in 2014:

O’Neal made frequent visits to Exotic’s zoo, and sponsored multiple tigers there

O’Neal’s appearance on Joe Exotic’s TV was far from the only time he went to the park. According to Exotic, O’Neal visited G.W. Zoo “11 or 12 times” over the span of about a decade.

Exotic told a local TV station he didn’t know who O’Neal was the first time he met him. Eventually, the two developed a friendly rapport.

“All the animals you want to see. tigers, ligers, little ligers, lions,” said O’Neal. “They even got chickens and roosters.”

”Every time, he’s on this side of the world now traveling up I-35 or anywhere, he stops by and spends four or five hours here at the zoo playing with whatever animals we have,” said Joseph Maldonado.

“You’ll never meet a bigger, nicer guy than Shaq,” Exotic told another TV station. Here’s a TV hit from a local news station talking about O’Neal’s visit in 2016. Here’s another TV segment from O’Neal at the zoo.

Exotic said O’Neal sponsored five tigers at the park, including a white cub named Prince after the recording artist. While O’Neal said on TV that he “got two more tigers” from the zoo, Exotic cleared up what that sponsorship meant:

“They pay for the care, the vet bill, the caging and the fees for the tigers entirely life here at the animal park,” Maldonado said. “But the tiger never leaves the animal park.”

”He sponsored them and he’ll come and see them any time he wants,” he said.

O’Neal wasn’t a fan of all the animals, according to Exotic.

”He’s not real fond of monkeys so we always tease him with the monkeys,” Maldonado said. “We just got in a 14-foot snake Saturday. We finally got him to hold the back end of that.”

O’Neal has a love for tigers

A 2001 LA Times feature during written by J.A. Adande followed O’Neal to the Philadelphia Zoo as his Lakers were facing the 76ers in the NBA Finals. In it, O’Neal says he visited his first zoo in high school because he never got to go when he was a kid. The story includes this excerpt:

Actually, O’Neal already sounds knowledgeable about the animal kingdom. As they gazed at a huge rhinoceros and a friend wondered if tigers ever attacked rhinoceroses, O’Neal offered a quick lesson.

“Tigers are not in Africa,” he said. “Tigers are in Siberia and India.”

There was also a story in the New York tabloids on O’Neal’s love of tigers, where he mentions he bought tiger cubs 10 years earlier that live on a farm in Jacksonville, Florida, where they’re looked after by a man known as “Tiger Dave.”

Shaq on his craziest purchase: “I bought two white tigers, who almost killed me.”

— SLAM (@SLAMonline) September 22, 2015

O’Neal’s love of tigers just so happened to bring him around Exotic before the Netflix series would many him infamous. In the recent podcast appearance, O’Neal says he binge-watched the show and enjoyed it.

At one point in the series, Exotic runs for president of the United States in 2016. O’Neal even gave him an endorsement to a local TV station:

“This is Senator Shaquille O’Neal, and I endorse Joe Exotic for president.”

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