The Tiger King’s mentor has been indicted on wildlife trafficking and animal cruelty charges, Virginia’s attorney general’s office announced Friday.
Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who appeared in a Netflix docuseries about exotic animal keepers that dominated during the early days of the pandemic, is accused of trafficking lion cubs between Virginia and South Carolina, along with Keith Wilson, owner of a roadside zoo. Antle’s Myrtle Beach Safari is in South Carolina and Wilson’s Wild Animal Park was in Virginia. They are both also charged with animal cruelty and conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act (which makes it illegal to sell lions across state lines).
Antle denied the charges in a statement to the New York Times. “I have deep regard and feelings for the animals in my care and would never hurt or abuse them in any way,” Antle said, adding that he wanted to clear his name. An email to Myrtle Beach Safari’s public relations representative went unanswered.
The Tiger King docuseries focused on Oklahoma tiger breeder Joe Exotic and his rivalry with Florida wildlife sanctuary owner Carole Baskin. (Joe Exotic is currently serving 22 years in federal prison for hiring a hitman to murder Baskin.) But it also shined a light on the murky world of exotic animal parks and portrayed Antle as an inspiration to other private zookeepers. Joe Exotic, the Tiger King who is otherwise known as Joseph Maldonado-Passage, called Antle his mentor in the Netflix show. The documentary additionally digs into Antle’s relationship with women on his staff, some of whom came to work for him as apprentices when they were teens and are now romantically involved with their boss. On the show, Antle likened his safari to “Shangri-la,” where “everything is neutral and happy and going well.”
The Virginia attorney general’s Animal Law Unit had been investigating Antle and Wilson for months before the Frederick County Grand Jury agreed to the charges, which open the door for a trial.
Last year, Virginia officials seized 119 animals from Wilson’s zoo, including lions, tigers, bears, camels, goats, and water buffalo. They described inadequate conditions and cruelty at the zoo after carrying out the 12-hour seizure, according to the attorney general’s office. Animal control agencies and animal rescue organizations are currently caring for the menagerie. The zoo is closed, according to its 2-star Yelp page. The number listed is disconnected and its website now redirects to what seems to be an Indonesian gambling site. A Facebook message sent to Wilson went unanswered.
Myrtle Beach Safari, home to 200 animals, including 60 big cats, is still running its tours that cost $339 per person, according to its website.