Netflix’s recent documentary series “Tiger King” has become a runaway hit, as viewers happily indulge in the tale of exotic animals, addiction, and scandal. Amid the chaos, one staff member has emerged as a shining star in his own right: Kelci “Saff” Saffery, a trans man who worked as Animal Keeper and Park Manager, spending nearly 10 years at the G.W. Zoo. On “Tiger King,” Saff’s loyalty and level-headedness provided a necessary break from the show’s more “exotic” personalities. And outside of the show, Saff’s identity as male has sparked an online debate about representation and identity — on “Tiger King,” Saff was repeatedly misgendered as female. I got a chance to chat with Saff and discuss his life, career, and what’s next.
Georges Toumayan: When did your passion for wild animals start?
Saff Saffery: I absolutely loved tigers since I could say “tiger.” I genuinely asked for one every birthday, Christmas, anytime I knew that I could ask for something, I asked for a tiger. Obviously I never got one, but I always loved animals in general. I was the kid that would take in the stray cats. And when I say ‘take them in’ I mean tend to them constantly, pet them, feed and love them.
GT: That’s so nice to take them in like that.
SS: Yup, and that was everything: lizards, birds, anything I could put my hands on. We always had animals around, and of course I always went out and sought them out. I just love everything about them. I love ocean and mountain animals too because of Hawaii. I used to catch Chameleons out of trees you know?
GT: It’s a really impressive dedication to the animals.
SS: [Laughing] Well I spent a lot of time outside. I think I’ve had more animal friends than people friends.
GT: Did you encounter a lot of animals in the Army?
SS: Absolutely. In Iraq I encountered a stray cat that I kept with me for over a week until it ran off. It seemed interesting to me that no matter where I went I found an animal and formed a connection somewhere.
GT: How did the military shape you and lead you to where you are now?
SS: The Army was about structure and discipline. I was in a bad place when I joined—as a young man in Hawaii I made a lot of mistakes. The military was a saving grace for me at that point. It provided the structure and camaraderie that I needed. Other than that, I was just another soldier. And this is the thing that soldiers go through everyday: training, deployment, time away from family, that’s par for the course in the military.
GT: Were you involved in any special operations?
SS: Most of my career was Air Defense, so we were attached to units and the end of my career there I was 89 Delta (Explosive Ordinance Disposal).
GT: Back to “Tiger King,” you mentioned the series failed to highlight the love and care of animals. Can you elaborate on that?
SS: It seems that if in this industry most of us are just in it for the pictures: “Look at me with this big tiger or lion.” That is just a tiny bit of the experience.
GT: What else?
SS: There are bad times too. There’s times where you’re literally working tired, hungry, frustrated, but you’re still there — presently there — because those animals do not understand. You can’t tell them, ‘Hey, I’m tired man, I can’t feed you today.’ Can’t go up to them and say, ‘Hey, there’s not enough food.’ These aren’t conversations you can’t have with animals. Animals have conversations of the heart, and that’s important. I really truly stand by that.
GT: How do you stay so calm in all of these dangerous, life-threatening situations?
SS: [Laughs] I can only put that on my upbringing. I have wonderful parents who obviously supported me in every decision I’ve ever made. I’ve always felt very supported. And then on top of that it’s for me a mind over matter thing. I know that if I can just make it through this, I can have a shot at something else. The stress, the pain, I make it through and I’m stronger for it. That’s my attitude toward it.
GT: But you don’t ever get overwhelmed by all the pain or stress from Joe’s neuroticism, the tigers, etc.?
SS: I don’t like being angry or frustrated. So I just try to keep it where I’m in a good, comfortable, happy place. It just seems to be right there on the level playing field that keeps me the happiest.
GT: There’s a lot of talk online about how you’re misgendered in the series. Is there anything you wanna clear up there?
SS: It’s not to dismiss that it’s a very big issue. It’s a hot-topic and I know there’s a massive community that’s fought for these rights and for the identification. For me, I just wanted to put it out there that it didn’t bother me. I’ve always lived my life this way. Been supported by my close friends, family and relatives. It’s never been a problem for me. Without sounding disrespectful, that’s just how my life has been. In terms of that, I definitely respect the fight and the climb that they’ve had to make.
GT: That’s a refreshing take on it.
SS: I think the reason I decided to step in and speak up is because it’s started to cause feuds on the Internet, and it seems to be separating people. People who all came to my social media or my platforms and show their support for equality, but then they’re divided by this misgendering and pronouns. That, to me, was going in the wrong direction. So I stepped up to say “It doesn’t bother me.” Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Everyone regardless of what is said. That’s America!
GT: Back to the G.W. Zoo now — what was a day like there?
SS: 7 a.m. I wake up to be at the park doing my duties at 8 a.m. Most mornings consisted of me feeding whatever animals were in my house, packing them up, and taking them to park with me. Then I’d walk across the park. As soon as I got there, I put those animals into the enclosures in the park, and then started my chores.
GT: What were the chores like?
SS: Start of chores usually starts at the barn. You get your food carts and work your way down. Unfortunately for me I didn’t have a section so it was pretty much the entire park. So you start from one end and work your way across through the entire park (16 acres).
GT: What goes into tending to the animals?
SS: You give them fresh food and water, as well as conduct extensive cleaning of their entire cages. We also focused on animal enrichment: giving them wholesome nutrients, switching their cages around to create new environments for them and those types of things. And that was every single cage, every single day.
GT: What were your initial takeaways when you first met Joe?
SS: The thing I never said on the show, was even after emailing [with] him back and forth, I never expected that man to walk through that door — never. It didn’t translate off over email, at all.
GT: How’s that?
SS: He was definitely 100%. He came in hard and fast. He’s in your face and very loud: His shirt was loud, his pants were loud. He’s this very significant presence in the room immediately.
GT: Did he mentor y’all ever?
SS: He was more of a “Do as I do, do as I say.” If you wanted to learn things his way, you observed. As far as protocol and routine, it was his way or the highway. He was very strict about that. Then, to top it all off, it was all about him.
It was interesting to begin with, but the Army type of dynamic and structure helped me personally with knowing that Joe — like he was Sergeant Major — he’s the top dog. With that mentality it was easy to fit in. It was Joe’s park, those were his animals, so like any employee-employer relationship, you just do what you’re told.
GT: Was he receptive to feedback?
SS: After you get to know him — after years of working with him directly and taking care of the animals and the progress I made with these animals and relationships I forged, he definitely started to ask for feedback. Though I don’t know if he ever really wanted it. It was Joe’s world, it was Joe’s show, and that’s just the way that it is. I’m thankful for the experience though, I really am.
GT: What’s it like playing with a giant animal knowing it could eat you alive any second?
SS: For me personally, it’s this rush, the risk and the danger aspect. The power behind these animals, you can feel their power, man. These are 600+ lb animals that are apex predators. They’re built to destroy. They’re built to be the top of the food chain. And here I am standing next to them. 150 lb human, tops. And I think just that alone is a feeling that you will never be able to describe or get anywhere else. I know what they’re capable of, but that feeling of standing next to them, of putting my hand on them, that just tops everything.
GT: On a weekend in Oct. 2013, you had a very violent incident involving a missing limb… how was that?
SS: I didn’t allow the pain to surpass the reality that there was a chance that I might bleed out while there’s also customers in the park. There were many factors that went into making this one particular situation a very bad situation, aside from the fact that I’m laying there with my hand ripped off.
GT: You kept your cool though remarkably well.
SS: I was focused on keeping my calm. Because if I’m calm then everyone else will remain at ease too.
GT: It must have been excruciating, though.
SS: I will tell you: Once I got in the ambulance and it was just the paramedics and me… Oh man did it hurt! [Laughs]. But it was keeping my composure so that this horrible situation didn’t get any worse was really what my thought process was there.
GT: Do you think the Army training helped with the mental and physical aspects of that?
SS: 100%, yes sir. There’s absolutely no way I had that type of mentality prior to the military. Growing up as a kid I was always tough ‘cause I was reckless. I would take tumbles on my bike, skateboard, jumping off rocks and everything else. I was always that way and if you’re gonna be reckless, you gotta be tough. But I know that mentality was refined when I was in the military: the structure, the dynamic there, the discipline, that’s definitely what helped me there.
GT: How has your life changed since the release of this show?
SS: Lately it’s been pretty busy for me because I personally love reaching out and responding to people. Like I said before, I always want to be able to speak for myself.
Other than that, my personal life has not changed, except going out is a little bit difficult. However, I’m not doing much nowadays, since the pandemic going around is really part of a damper for all of us at the moment.
GT: Do you have people in Hollywood contacting you now?
SS: I was just telling my sister, I cannot keep up with the amount of emails that come through. I try my best and take it in stride, but if you try to conquer it all at once you’re gonna drive yourself crazy. I’m taking it day by day.
GT: What’s something Netflix should have showcased more?
SS: They definitely highlighted a lot more of the negative things. And that makes sense, but there was a lot that happened in that park: I think they failed to mention a lot of the charitable contributions and efforts at the park: Collecting toys for kids that wouldn’t get anything for Christmas. Collecting blankets and clothes so they could be donated to the homeless. These are things we did every year since I’ve been there.
GT: So what’s next for you?
SS: Normalcy. I went through an acclimation period and I didn’t take well to it. My whole life has been 90 miles per hour and to me, getting a 9-5 job, the house, car, etc, didn’t sit well with me. Which is why I ended up completely leaving Oklahoma. I wanted to get back to the bare bones of my life and put my feet in the sand again.
GT: Get back to the basics?
SS: Yup. I really genuinely just needed to find myself again so that I could move on. It was like the worst break-up in the world. I invested so much of myself into that zoo. But life goes on, with or without me being ready. So I just had to put my shoulders up and keep driving forward.
GT: Are you able to stay in touch still with all your friends from the zoo, and fans?
KS: I definitely make time to respond, be my own voice and advocate throughout this entire thing. That takes up a lot of time too.
GT: What more can we as the public be doing to raise animal care awareness?
SS: Education is key. I include myself in this. Educate yourself on the legislation, regulations, and protocols concerning these exotic animals. Particularly big cats. When it comes to breeding and of course action, and when you do your research, educate yourself on that. Find what you think is best for them. Because I’ll be honest with you: after 10 years in the business I couldn’t tell you what’s best. So I need to do my research as well.