Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, one of the eccentric stars of Tiger King, has been indicted on wildlife trafficking and related charges following a lengthy investigation into a “roadside zoo” in Virginia. An animal law unit alleges Antle and the Virginia zoo owner, Keith A. Wilson, were trafficking lion cubs between Virginia and Antle’s zoo in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, called Myrtle Beach Safari.
The charges followed an investigation by the Attorney General Mark R. Herring’s animal law unit, which began at Wilson’s zoo in 2019. Two of Antle’s daughters were also charged: Tawny Antle and Tilakum Watterson. Investigators allege animals at the “roadside zoo” were not given proper care. More than 100 animals were seized from the zoo, including lions, tigers, bears and water buffalos.
The legal action was commended by PETA and by a Washington, DC-based animal rights group, Animal Wellness Action, which is fighting for laws to prohibit interaction between big cats and the public.
Here’s what you need to know:
The Investigation Into Doc Antle Began Before Tiger King Aired & He Was Connected to a Roadside Zoo Where 119 Animals Were Seized
The animal law unit was investigating the relationship between Wilson and Doc Antle for months before the indictment was filed. Investigators allege Doc Antle and Wilson were trafficking lion cubs between Virginia and South Carolina. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Agency executed a search warrant at Antle’s Myrtle Beach property in December, 2019, before he became a household name through the Netflix series.
Wilson and his nephew, Christian Dall’Acqua, were already facing trafficking charges before Friday’s announcement. The Attorney General’s office announced in November, 2019, that Wilson and Dall’Acqua were indicted on 46 counts of animal cruelty. Their trial is slated to begin June 21, 2021. That indictment came after the seizure of 119 animals from Wilson’s “roadside zoo” in August 2019. A judge ordered the animals be removed and secured after allegations Wilson “cruelly treated, neglected, or deprived the animal[s] of adequate care,” the statement said.
Investigators seized animals including lions, tigers, bears, camels, goats, water buffalo, and others. They are in the care of animal control agencies and exotic and agricultural animal rescue partner organizations, the statement said.
Officials held a 12-hour hearing following the seizure, which included testimony and video evidence about alleged inadequate conditions and animal cruelty.
Antle is facing dozens of charges, which were announced Friday, October 9, 2020. He faces one felony count of wildlife trafficking, one felony count of conspiracy to wildlife traffic, four misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act, and nine misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty, according to a statement from the Attorney General’s office. Antle, his daughters and Wilson were indicted by the Grand Jury of Fredrick County, Virginia.
Tawny Antle was charged with one misdemeanor count of cruelty to animals and one misdemeanor count of violating the Endangered Species Act, and Watterson was charged with two misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals and two misdemeanor counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.
Wilson, owner of Wilson’s Wild Animal Park, was charged with one felony count of wildlife trafficking, one felony count of conspiracy to wildlife traffic, four misdemeanor counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, four misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act, and nine misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty.
An Animal Rights Groups Lauded the Attorney General for the Indictment Against Antle
Brittany Peet, the PETA Foundation Deputy General Counsel of Captive Animal Law Enforcement, who also appeared on Tiger King, said the indictment is another step toward alleged animal abusers facing legal consequences.
“The dominos are falling one by one—nearly every animal abuser featured in Tiger King is now in custody, out of business, or facing administrative or criminal charges. After years of working to stop ‘Doc’ Antle’s cruel tiger-petting sessions and chimpanzee video stunts, PETA is eager to see him face the courtroom—and the consequences,” Peet said in a statement provided to Heavy.
Another animal rights group, Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C., commended the attorney general for the investigation and the indictment against Antle in a statement provided to Heavy.
“We applaud Attorney General Mark Herring for taking a stand against the egregious and inhumane trade of dangerous big cats,” said Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action. “Irresponsible breeding, inhumane living conditions, and public exploitation is a serious problem in the U.S., and caging these wild animals also presents a threat to human health and safety. We call on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to help upgrade the law by swiftly moving the Big Cat Public Safety Act to a vote as soon as the House returns in session.”
The group is working to pass bills to strengthen laws regarding big cat ownership, including outlawing direct contact between the public and big cats – an issue that was frequently addressed on Tiger King. Animal Wellness Action is working to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, H.R. 1380, with 230 House cosponsors and its Senate companion S. 2561 with 30 cosponsors in the U.S. Senate, the statement went on to say.
“The measure has been reported out of the House Natural Resources Committee and would revise requirements governing the trade of big cats (i.e., species of lion, tiger, leopard, cheetah, jaguar, or cougar or any hybrid of such species) – specifically, it revises restrictions on the possession and exhibition of big cats, including to restrict direct contact between the public and big cats,” the statement said. “But the House leadership has yet to bring the measure to a vote despite overwhelming support for the bill.”