One of the strange cultural markers of this very strange year was the you-couldn’t-make-this-up bizarre world of Tiger King, a Netflix series that came into our lives at the very start of the pandemic – approximately 30 emotional light years ago. Leopard print, polygamy, guns… it started off as an ‘only in America’ rollicking tale of sex, drugs and tigers, before descending into an equally ‘only in America’ nightmare of animal abuse, sexual abuse and, in the end, suicide (and possibly murder!)
Truly one of the only sympathetic characters involved in this show (which was viewed by 45 million people) was Saff Saffery, an ex-military person who became the heart and soul of the G.W Zoo – whose dedication to the wild animals was truly put to the test when one of them bit his arm off. Now, Saff is taking part in the new one-off documentary Surviving Joe Exotic, which plays this week on Animal Planet, and follows up on the behind-the-scenes drama at G.W. Zoo, both in terms of the people who worked there and the animals themselves.
On the phone from California, Saff is quiet-spoken and extremely polite, with “Yes ma’am”s scattered throughout our conversation. He laughs softly when describing the weird dichotomies this year has thrown at him – both personally and professionally. In his work, Saff is a private person who suddenly became very famous overnight. In his home life, he says he’s the happiest he’s ever been, and well aware of the irony that comes with saying that in this year of horror. “The madness is proper,” he says, noting that as he speaks to me, the mountains surrounding his new hometown of California are on fire.
Madness seems a fitting word for so much of the Tiger King universe, you have to think. Joining the game park – where Saff worked for 10 years – came at a crossroads in his life. “I had just got out of the military, so it was a very pivotal time for me, in terms of how much it defined my future. I had gone through this commitment of the military and I was looking for the next big adventure in my life, to fill in those adventure gaps, those excitement gaps.”
It was the community spirit of both the military and then the tiger park that appealed so much to Saff. Growing up in Hawaii, he says, he was always looking to belong somewhere. “I loved the camaraderie – I loved sports and athletics as a child, because it was a team effort.” Being close to the animals combined both his love of nature and his love of adventure. “The feeling of standing next to a 600-pound tiger, without anything in between you, is so incredible… the fact that I was able to live my dream and get paid for it, that was a win. It’s still the best thing I’ve done in my life.”
Saff’s loyalty to the big cats was one of the key points of the Tiger King series, in particular following a horrendous workplace incident where he lost an arm to one of the tigers. When asked to choose between losing the arm or getting reconstructive surgery, he chose to lose his arm because it meant he could return to the tigers sooner. “It’s hard to explain while you’re there getting your arm wrapped up because a tiger bit you, how much these animals have done for you… for your soul,” he laughs gently. “I was a very broken person [before]… not because of a bad childhood, I had a wonderful childhood, and not because of bad relationships, I’ve had incredible relationships. I just… I never really found myself. So I threw myself into these situations where I could be completely consumed by these distractions and then go to sleep, sleep it off, and do it all over again the next day.”
Working with big cats, he says, “turned me from being a selfish person.”
“You’re a part of something way bigger than yourself – I knew I wasn’t powerful, I wasn’t strong, I wasn’t fast when I was standing next to a tiger. Standing there in their presence, it was amazing. I still hold onto that.”
One of the saddest parts about Tiger King, I say to Saff, is that it felt like everybody involved with the park started there with the best of intentions. “Absolutely,” he agrees. “Joe [Exotic] didn’t just start a tiger park out of nowhere – before that he opened a pet store, he’d done work with veterinarian hospitals. He’d loved animals his whole life.”
“At the end of it all – it’s almost human nature to always look for ‘what else, what else?’ That was Joe’s demise, he was never satisfied with anything… especially when you add in the pressures of the real world.” The financial pressure, Saff says, was part of the downfall. “Ultimately, it’s greed. Because it’s not a product, it’s an animal.”
Saff had already stopped working for Joe a while before Netflix’s Tiger King came out, and he said it was hard to be drawn back into that world once the show aired. But he’s grateful that it has put a spotlight on animal welfare and how big cats are treated. He very much misses the cats, he says, and he now gets that same ‘soul’ work from being with his family. He credits the big cats for turning his life around. “I’m proud to be involved in this and I’m proud to by myself on this, however I’m not a wonderful person. I’ve been a very selfish person all my life, so to be able to see how much good I can do now, it’s been incredible. I’ve very happy in this moment of my life and it’s not because of what I’m receiving, it’s because of what I’m able to do for others. Ironically,” he laughs, “In 2020, in the middle of a crisis, I’m very happy.”
Surviving Joe Exotic plays on Animal Planet, Saturday 31 October, 8.30pm