I am outside scrubbing the concrete of the bear enclosure. There is a patch of dark staining the gray expanse, and Bhagavan Antle, the owner of The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S. for short), told me that it will come up if I scrub hard enough. I know it’s not true, and so does he. I don’t know what made the marks, but they’ve been there since I arrived and are obviously permanent. But I scrub away as I watch him leave with the others, heading out to the movies for a moment of rest. I’ll wait until he comes back and tells me to stop. I know it’s just part of my penance for making friends when we were doing the Renaissance Faire. I had the audacity to ask to spend my few free moments with them, and I even started a relationship with a guy for a while, signaling that I was not willing to give up every single thing outside of this place. Since the faire ended I have been paying for this mistake, but I am learning. I let them have my hair dyed and cut as Bhagavan wanted, and in a few weeks time I’ll be having the breast implants put in. I don’t remember saying yes to that, but I do remember not saying no, which is really the same thing. I went to the appointment they made and signed the papers they handed me. I don’t really want the implants, but I do want the three days of rest that they will afford me. I would do anything to earn some rest.

This is a moment in my life that I have reflected on many times. It happened during my first couple of years as an “apprentice” tiger trainer, when I was still in the process of erasing my previous self and building one better suited to my new goals and family. I know now that this was in the early stages of my own radicalization. And I believe that anyone could find themselves in this same position.

Since 9/11 it seems that it is impossible to turn on the news and not be confronted with another story about the actions of radicals or extremists: kids being recruited for terrorist groups, journalists being beheaded, or people blowing themselves up in order to kill innocents. The consensus in our culture seems to be that we should view these radicalized people as an embodiment of all that is evil. We say they are motivated by hatred of everything we hold dear. These are nihilistic people. They have no morals. They have no respect for human life.

This is simply not the case. These are moral people motivated by the desire to find meaning and direction in their lives. Perhaps most importantly, though, they are seeking belonging. As professor Scott Atran put it during his address to the UN Security Council in April of 2015:

Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalization. They radicalize to find a firm identity in a flattened world….

Many people would like to tell you that our current problem with radical terrorism is that Islam is inherently evil. One anti-Islam website I found claims that “Islam isn’t hijacked by extremists — it’s what inspires them.” This site also goes on to quote many violent-sounding quotes from the Quran, without considering the many similarly violent quotes in their own religious books. It’s not the religion that creates radicals, it is isolated people searching for meaning who fall into the hands of radicalized groups led by charismatic people.

I can tell you what this is like from my own personal experience. When I was 19 I found myself armed with nothing but a D-average high school education and a distaste for school in general, which left me both unwilling and unable to go to college. All my friends were going, but I was working full time. Suddenly I found that I had very little in common with my peers and very few respectable paths available to me. So I decided to run off with the circus. I discovered the T.I.G.E.R.S. website, read about the two-year apprenticeship, was shortly accepted, and dropped everything to go to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and begin.

Barbara Fisher as Bala, a young T.I.G.E.R.S. apprentice. Photo: James Crockett
Barbara Fisher as Bala, a young T.I.G.E.R.S. apprentice. Photo: James Crockett

And there I did find purpose. An average workday lasted from 8 in the morning to well past midnight, and we all worked seven days a week. We didn’t receive any of the money we made besides $100 a week for necessities, because the money was to go towards the animals and the cause. There was no time for outside interests or people, and I soon learned that all but the most thoroughly vetted of outsiders were destroying the planet and needed to be either educated or reviled. There was only our small group of outcasts against the world. We fought with each other, we worked beside each other, we slept piled up in hovels together, we risked and saved each other’s lives regularly, and we loved each other fiercely. But no one was as beloved as our leader, Bhagavan Antle. It was he who molded us, cutting away the undesirable bits and trying to shape what was left into something of value. Soon all the fears and limits we arrived with reduced to little dormant seeds sleeping underneath the spreading tree that was fear of disappointing him.

I once caught an alligator that was larger than me. I had never done so before and I haven’t since. I did it because Bhagavan told me to, and instantly I obeyed. Part of me is proud that I did so, but another part is appalled. I had quite a bit of practice with the big cats at this point, but none with alligators. I didn’t do this as a demonstration of skill, I did it because I loved this man’s good opinion of me more than I loved my own life.

So why didn’t I just leave? Why don’t the suicide bombers quit before they are forced to kill themselves? It’s not like they are forcing them to stay; they choose to, right? Well, this is very easy to say but very hard to do in real life. When so much of an individual’s identity is invested in an extremist group, leaving can mean losing everything: property, people, identity, accomplishment, and years and years of work. As Maajid Nawaz, a former member of the Islamic extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, put it in an interview with Terry Gross for the radio show “Fresh Air”:

Everything falls apart. I lost all my friends. There are members- very, very close and dear members- of my family who simply don’t speak to me anymore and haven’t done so for years. My marriage fell apart. I suffered my second identity crisis, and I was very, very lucky to have been able to get through it.

I managed to get out after about eight years living like this. I got a pass for a couple weeks in November 2006 to go back to Iowa for my grandfather’s funeral. One evening while I was there my brother introduced me to a guy he worked with, who happened to be someone I remembered vividly from high school. My friends and I used to obsess over him because he was the cutest boy in the world. Three days later we were in love. He tied a metaphoric rope around my waist that tethered me to the outside world before I returned to the tiger compound.

Late in the night, when I was finally alone, I would call this cute boy. I put some of my thoughts into his head and he thought them through with me. The rope that he tied around me turned into a life preserver and I started to float up out of the depths.

By the spring of 2007 I had decided to leave, and I went to Bhagavan and told him. He said he’d give me extra money and the privilege of leaving on good terms if I stayed until the end of August, when the tourists start to thin. One day in the middle of August I wasn’t feeling well, and we got the OK from Antle to go. We packed our things in my car and drove away. I still remember the feeling of leaving. I was crying, but my heart was filled with absolute joy. There was a baby in my belly that felt like a guarantee that I would never have to return. When I told Bhagavan about the baby he said I should abort it. He said he would put herbs in my tea when I wasn’t looking and I would thank him later. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not, but as we left, I remember feeling the baby fluttering around in my belly and being overcome with relief.

Bala and a fellow T.I.G.E.R.S. apprentice. Photo: Rita Gartin
Bala and a fellow T.I.G.E.R.S. apprentice. Photo: Rita Gartin

That night we rented a suite in the best hotel we could find. I fell asleep with a smile on my face. I woke up choking. It was the first time I had the dream that haunts me until this very day. In the dream I am back there, but this time I am in a cage. I will never escape. Bhagavan is there, calling me by the name he gave me: “Your tiger children are starving, Bala. You left them to starve. I see now that you can’t be trusted. You’re too crazy. Your mind is fucked.”

I touch my belly, but there is no more baby there. He has taken it away from me. I scream and I beg him to let me go. I look into his big, clear blue eyes. “I will keep you safe here, daughter. I love you. I love you.” His mouth speaks these words over and over, but his eyes fixed on mine are flat and cold.

I’m a middle class white girl from Iowa. I had a happy childhood, wasn’t abused or even spanked, raised in a two-parent household with strong Christian values. If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.

Barbara Fisher
Barbara Fisher was born and raised in Ames. She worked as a "full time volunteer" big cat handler at The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) from 1999 to 2007 under Bhagavan "Doc" Antle. She has since returned to Ames, where she now lives with her husband and three sons.