On Friday, South Carolina Attorney General Mark Herring announced that Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, a central figure in the Netflix documentary series Tiger King, had been indicted on two felony charges related to wildlife trafficking and 17 misdemeanor charges for animal cruelty and alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act. Two of Antle’s daughters and a business associate were handed additional charges.
In 2017, Ames resident and former Antle apprentice Barbara Fisher wrote about her difficult experience working at his Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species in an essay for the Informer. Fisher was later interviewed for the documentary series and appeared on its second episode. After watching it, fans of the hit show discovered her essay and began sharing it in online forums, drawing thousands of new readers to the website.
The Informer reached out to Fisher on Friday for her thoughts about the breaking news. This is her response.
This morning, I awoke to a slew of messages. He has finally been charged. I was shocked. Not by the charges themselves. Of course, those are completely true, and we have all had the opportunity to know them to be true for years and years. I was shocked by how run-of-the-mill the happenstance was that got him charged. He’s being charged with multiple felonies and misdemeanors, seemingly for doing something that he has been doing almost daily for decades.
While I was there, nothing was more normal than transporting animals. We filled the backs of trucks and vans with kenneled cubs every day, taking them to “cubworld,” as we called it to sell photos. We traveled daily in cars with apes on our laps. We smuggled baboons into movie theaters, wrapped up like babies. Once, we helped a man sneak a capuchin on a plane from Florida to New York so it could be on a morning talk show. Once, the chimp trainer carried a chimp under a blanket into a hotel lobby to rent a room, pretending she was a sleeping child. Once, a baby leopard died of heat stroke after being transported in a covered kennel in a trailer with no air conditioning, during the hottest part of the summer in South Carolina. Somehow, all that went unnoticed. Even though the leopard died at the vet’s office. Even though the baboons made noise in the theater. Even though we were supposed to be overseen by the government. No one was watching, and even when things happened in front of people, they didn’t see.
I didn’t see, either. Or if I did, I was either unaware that it wasn’t legal or I felt that it was an unfortunate sacrifice in the name of our mission. I really did feel that sacrifice was necessary for the cause. I certainly sacrificed, and so did everyone around me. We handed over everything we had in the name of that cause: our time (all of it), our friendships, our right to be paid, our right to be safe, and even our bodies. The fact that the animals were also sacrificing wasn’t lost on us, but we felt it was for the good of their species. They were Animal Ambassadors, begging alms for their wild counterparts. Never mind that we weren’t affiliated with legitimate conservation organizations. Never mind that most of the money seemed to be going into beautifying the park, acquiring more animals, buying more land, going on expensive vacations, buying fancy vehicles, clothes, hair, plastic surgery, jewelry, and the like. These expenses were necessary. We had to look legitimate. We had to appear to be magical. That’s why we never allowed photos of the cages. It’s why we never acknowledged questions posed by people who witnessed animals in transport, or who questioned us about where the animals came from.
One of the first times I traveled with animals, we stopped at a gas station. Bhagavan was there, and he set me to watch the trailer while the others went into the rest stop. He told me that if anyone asked what was in the trailer, I should say, “Lawnmower parts.” He said, even if they were to see one of the tigers that was actually in the trailer, I was to look them in the eye and say, “Those are lawnmower parts.” This obtuse allegiance to lies, even when confronted with the truth, seems to be the magical spell that keeps this place going. And it has been working well, until now.
I feel bad for his daughters, who have also been charged with animal cruelty in this indictment. Because if his daughters are guilty, then every person who has ever worked there is just as guilty, including me. We had almost no agency, and we also believed him when he said that what he did was the correct and legal way to do things. We did what he said to do, and that was it. Tawny especially deserves the benefit of the doubt. She has been at that facility since she was born and has no experience with anything else. She hasn’t had the opportunity to learn how to live in a sane world. All that should be taken into account, now that she is being asked to answer for her father’s choices.
I have been trying to bring this to people’s attention for several years now, and I should have been doing so for years before I did. But I won’t place all this blame on myself. Certainly, the USDA had the means to know all of this. So did the animal rights crowd. So did all the other employees, and all the people in the industry. So did all the AZA zoos, wildlife filmmakers, and other media outlets who claim to be concerned with the natural world, but who patronized Doc Antle without a word about the strange things they saw there. So has every person who shared a viral video of a dog and an orangutan, or a chimp and a dog, or a beautiful girl in a bikini riding a liger. So did everyone who watched Tiger King and came away shouting about “Carole Fucking Baskin” instead of insisting that this industry end immediately. It happened in front of our eyes, but we didn’t see. Hopefully we all see more clearly now.