Shaquille O’Neal is setting the record straight about his involvement with zookeeper Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as “Joe Exotic” of the hit Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.
The show follows Maldonado-Passage and the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, the zoo he previously owned in Oklahoma. O’Neal makes a brief appearance in the seven-episode series and is shown interacting with some of the animals.
O’Neal also poses for pictures with Maldonado-Passage, who was sentenced in January to serve 22 years in prison for attempted murder and other crimes, which included killing tigers to make room for more big cats at his animal park.
“So we go in there, and it’s a beautiful place, and the character that was there was Exotic Joe,” O’Neal, 48, recalled in a recent episode of “The Big Podcast with Shaq,” which addressed the cameo. “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,” he added.
The NBA legend admitted to donating money to the park but explained that he gives to many of the zoos he visits. He maintained that he did not know what was happening behind the scenes with Maldonado-Passage.
“I don’t harm tigers. I love tigers. I love white tigers,” he said. “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,” O’Neal said. “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.”
When asked by his co-host if his appearance at the park could paint him in a “bad light,” O’Neal said he wasn’t worried.
“People that know me know that I’m righteous,” he said.
Despite the controversial appearance on the docuseries, O’Neal said he binged watched Tiger King and even called it “a really good documentary.”
In 2019, Maldonado-Passage was found guilty for paying a hitman $3,000 to kill Carole Baskin, an animal activist who runs a sanctuary called the Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla.
As PEOPLE previously reported, Baskin criticized Maldonado-Passage for publicly proclaiming to love big cats, though he killed five of his tigers, bred them, sold baby lemurs and more in hopes of turning a profit.
Prosecutors said that Maldonado-Passage didn’t appreciate her public criticism and tried to silence her by hiring a hitman. However, his plan backfired and he landed in jail instead.
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