The owner of a popular private zoo in South Carolina who was featured in the television series Tiger King has been indicted in Virginia on 15 charges that include wildlife trafficking and animal cruelty related to his activity with lions.
Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who owns Myrtle Beach Safari, was the prominent face of an attraction that touted cub-petting of tigers long before Joseph Maldonado-Passage, or “Joe Exotic,” gained notoriety earlier this year for his starring role in the Netflix docu-tainment series Tiger King. Antle’s 37-year-old facility, which he runs with three girlfriends and his children, has long been popular with celebrities seeking to cuddle tiger cubs. He and his children have millions of followers on TikTok and Instagram.
On October 8, the Virginia Attorney General’s office charged Antle with one felony count of wildlife trafficking, one felony count of conspiracy to traffic wildlife, four misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act, and nine misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty.
The charges stem from a months-long investigation into illegal selling and transport of lions between Antle and Keith Wilson, owner of Wilson’s Wild Animal Park in Winchester, Virginia. Wilson has been indicted on identical charges to Antle, plus four additional counts of conspiracy. (Wilson already was facing 46 counts of animal cruelty in relation to a November 2019 raid that resulted in authorities confiscating 119 of his animals.)
It’s illegal to sell lions—protected species under the Endangered Species Act—across state lines.
Two of Antle’s daughters also have been indicted on misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals and violating the Endangered Species Act. Antle, Myrtle Beach Safari, and Wilson did not respond to requests for comment.
Tiger King star “Joe Exotic,” meanwhile, is serving 22 years in prison for conspiracy to murder and killing tigers. Other private zoo owners who appeared in Tiger King have faced charges as well: Jeff Lowe lost his license to exhibit animals to the public, and Tim Stark was convicted of animal cruelty and violating the Endangered Species Act (and arrested yesterday for allegedly trying to conceal animals from federal authorities after weeks on the run).
Tiger King became a pop culture sensation when it was released during the early days of the pandemic lockdown in March, but critics point out that it glosses over the realities of “roadside” zoos—many of which speed-breed tigers so tourists have cubs to cuddle, and frequently fail to provide adequate food, enclosures, and veterinary care.
“It does bring full circle everything we saw in Tiger King,” says Dan Ashe, CEO of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits more than 200 zoos in the United States—but not cub-petting attractions like Antle’s. “What pretty clearly looked like awful operations [on the show] in fact is true. One by one, we’ve seen Tiger King stars—Tim Stark, Jeff Lowe, and now Doc Antle—be exposed for mistreatment of animals.” (Ashe is also the former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces wildlife trafficking laws.)
Antle’s social media videos show him and his family swimming with tigers and playing with chimpanzees. They stand in stark contrast to cruelty charges in the indictment, three of which allege that he willfully perpetuated cruelty toward lion cubs in July and August 2019 that produced “torture or unnecessary suffering.”
The case was investigated by the Virginia attorney general’s Animal Law Unit, the first state attorney general unit in the country dedicated to investigating animal welfare and abuse cases. To date, the unit has handled 1,714 animal matters, including prosections, trainings, and consultations. “When I created the...Animal Law Unit in 2015 I couldn’t have imagined the results the team would have,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said in an emailed statement to National Geographic.
“It’s been a shining example of what law enforcement should be doing to protect animals,” says Delcianna Winders, director of the Animal Law Litigation Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School, in Portland, Oregon. She notes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency tasked with enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, gave Antle’s Myrtle Beach Safari a clean inspection report both the month before and the month after state authorities searched it in December 2019 as part of this investigation to obtain evidence used for its indictment of Antle.
It’s rare for states to investigate and prosecute animal trafficking cases, she says, and even rarer to follow them out of state, as Virginia officials did by tying Wilson’s activities in Virginia to Antle’s in South Carolina.
But Virginia jurisdiction is limited to in-state activities. It’s up to South Carolina authorities to pursue further investigations into Antle’s Myrtle Beach operation, and federal authorities to pursue investigations into violations of the Animal Welfare Act and federal wildlife trafficking laws.
Antle runs a foundation called the Rare Species Fund, which purports to raise money for wild tiger conservation. He recently announced plans to star in a new reality show, with the goal of changing how he’s publicly perceived. He told People magazine last week that there is a “false analysis that there are tigers in America that are in desperate need of help when the wild tiger is the one that really needs to be saved.” (Read more: There are more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than in the wild.)
Ashe says investigations into such roadside attractions are vital.
“The reason they exist is because people go to them,” he says, noting that there are plenty of accredited zoos in the U.S. for those seeking to view animals. Referring to a mantra he used at the Fish and Wildlife Service while working to stop travelers from buying trafficked animal souvenirs, he said: “Be informed, buy informed.”