Joe Exotic’s obsession with himself, not with his nemesis Carole Baskin, is the reason that his life spun out of control. That’s what Kelci “Saff” Saffery, his former friend and animal keeper is telling HollywoodLife EXCLUSIVELY. The 34-year-old army vet was one of the most memorable stars in Netflix’s hit docu-series, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem & Madness, because he opted to have his arm amputated and return to work within days of being attacked by a tiger. Such was his devotion to Joe, the zoo and his cause. But, for Saff, the colorful character’s life went downhill when he became too consumed with fame.
“He is obsessed with Carole, but he is more obsessed with himself,” Saff says. “And that’s when it all went away. Once he stopped putting the animals at the forefront of everything, none of it mattered anymore. He was already out of the race. The reason that he was so attached to this feud with Carole Baskin, is because he is obsessed with himself and she was out to destroy that.”
Tiger King follows the bizarre case of Joseph Maldonado-Passage (aka Joe Exotic), a wild animal loving 57-year-old who once owned the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park in Oklahoma. He is serving a 22-year prison sentence for hiring a hitman to murder Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist and owner of the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Florida. Carole, 58, tried to put Joe out of business because she was opposed to the way he treated his tigers and the fact that he held them captive at all.
Asked if he was obsessed with fame, Saff says of the aspiring country singer, “One hundred percent.” “Just being the only, the number one, the best, the loudest,” he adds. “Anytime he could put himself above or beyond anyone else, that’s what he was going to do… He was born to be, in his head, in his heart, the star of his own show. Period. That’s the Joe that I know.”
Saff recalls why they parted ways. “It definitely progressively got worse,” he says, claiming that eventually there were too many animals and too few handlers to care for them adequately. “When I met him, he was still the man that wanted to be the star of his own show, but he had the animals’ wellbeing…at the forefront of his concerns. There wasn’t a move that was made, that wasn’t for the benefit directly of the animals.” Back then, Saff says, they’d drive for hours just to rescue a lion or a tiger. “But once there was any hint that he could be in some of sort of spotlight, i.e. running for president, running for governor, handing out condoms or rolling papers [with his face on it]…” Saff says. “This is a family friendly establishment. They came here to play with animals, not be a part of your campaign. That’s when I noticed that I probably am not going to be progressive here. So, in 2018, I walked away.”
Saff, who has loved tigers since his childhood, left before the “drama went down.” Whether Joe’s guilty, innocent, or the victim of a set-up (as he claims), Saff thinks that he ultimately is responsible for the position that he’s in, mostly because he “runs his mouth” a lot. “I’m sure he was taken advantage of,” he says. “But you know, as an adult, you’re responsible for what you say and what you do. So, I don’t know about being taken advantage of. As an adult, you’re responsible. It’s called accountability.”