Yes, that is Doc Antle in the background of Britney Spears' iconic "I’m a Slave 4 U" performance at the 2001 Video Music Awards. The surprising connection between the world’s biggest pop star and the Tiger King: Murder, Madness and Mayhem personality resurfaced in the aftermath of the series’ release, and Doc confirmed it while reminiscing about working with Spears.
"She was such a darling, totally just a fanatic person wanting a perfect performance," he tells ET’s Lauren Zima. "We were there for several days rehearsing so that the tigers would be relaxed and happy to be out there and that everything could be smooth and taken care of as best as possible. She was there rehearsing and working -- just the hardest working, sweetest young girl, out there making all the pieces click together."
The performance is best remembered for the moment Spears dances across the stage with a Burmese python named Banana draped around her, but it starts with the then 19-year-old in a cage with a live tiger, handled by none other than Bhagavan "Doc" Antle.
"I have total confidence in that tiger. I knew him since he was a baby," Doc says of what he was thinking in that moment. "He's about seven years old right there [and at the] peak of his game. A super macho, aggressive male tiger. That's the tiger that you go somewhere like that with because he cares less about the fireworks, the gas explosions, the banging music. He's totally concerned with just holding his own and being cool."
"He'd always met women in his life -- because there's so many women trainers that raised him from a cub and hung out with him -- so he just thought Britney was one more friend," he adds. "She petted him and was hugging on him and hanging out there with him."
Doc says that the entire Spears family spent time with the tigers ahead of that year's VMAS, with Jamie Lynn Spears and their mom, Lynne, coming by to play with the tiger cubs on hand. "It was all a grand time," he recalls.
As founder of The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) and owner of Myrtle Beach Safari, Doc says he's extending an open invitation for Spears to come visit his park for the first time, but understands why that might not happen anytime soon.
"Brit knows who we are and where we are," he says. "Right now, I'm sure with the Hollywood vibe, she'd be afraid that it’s on fire with all of this crazy salacious, insanity that has been made into Tiger King."