Does Antle fear identification with the ordinary more than felony charges?
RICHMOND, Virginia––Kevin “Doc” Antle, who styles himself “Mahamayavia Bhagavan Antle,” appears to have spent most of his adult life trying to avoid being identified with his youth in Bettendorf, Iowa, never once mentioned in any of dozens of interviews with him collected by ANIMALS 24-7 from periodicals published over more than 30 years.
Antle in Bettendorf was just one among a large family raised on the plains by a World War II veteran who spent 31 years working for the Sivyer Steel Corporation foundry.
Antle, after nearly 40 years of myth-building around himself, his assumed Hindu name, a claimed doctorate in Chinese medicine, and his exotic animal shows, is now facing 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, Virginia attorney general Mark Herring announced on October 9, 2020.
“Trafficked lion cubs”
“Herring says Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle and the owner of a roadside zoo in Northern Virginia trafficked lion cubs between Virginia and Antle’s property in South Carolina, called Myrtle Beach Safari,” summarized WWBT reporter Victoria Doss.
The indictments “against a man featured in the popular Netflix series Tiger King,” Doss mentioned, “come after a months-long investigation,” which “included the execution of a search warrant at Antle’s South Carolina property in December 2019 by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Agency.”
Also charged were Keith A. Wilson, owner of Wilson’s Wild Animal Park in Frederick County, Virginia, and two of Antle’s adult daughters.
The charges against Wilson are the same as were filed against Antle.
Antle daughters charged too
One Antle daughter, Tawny Antle, was charged with one misdemeanor count of cruelty to animals and one misdemeanor count of violating the Endangered Species Act.
The other Antle daughter, Tilakum Watterson, was charged with two misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals and two misdemeanor counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.
Recounted Doss, “Antle, Wilson, and Antle’s daughters were all charged by the Grand Jury of Frederick County.”
The case broke, Doss suggested, when “In August 2019, attorney general Herring’s Animal Law Unit secured custody of 119 animals that were seized from Wilson’s ‘roadside zoo,’ after a judge issued an order finding that Wilson ‘cruelly treated, neglected, or deprived the animal[s] of adequate care.’
“Lions, tigers, bears”
“The seized animals included lions, tigers, bears, camels, goats, water buffalo, and more,” Doss enumerated. The animals, Dos said, “are currently in the care of animal control agencies and exotic and agricultural animal rescue partner organizations.”
Herring in November 2019 announced that both Keith Wilson and his nephew Christian Dall’Acqua had been indicted by the Frederick County grand jury on 46 counts of animal cruelty.
The case against Wilson and Dall’Acqua is to go to trial on June 21, 2021.
The charges against Wilson and Antle may not get to court for quite a while longer.
Posted Carole Baskin, founder of the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, “I believe that Joe Schreibvogel,” also known as Joseph Passage Maldonado and ‘Joe Exotic,’ “was the largest producer of cubs for the pay to play industry,” meaning the business of raising tiger cubs for paying customers to pet and pose for photos holding.
Baskin: “Real kingpin is Antle”
“But I think the real kingpin behind this kind of exploitation has been Kevin Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle,” Baskin added.
Antle is “just smarter and better funded than the dominos that have dropped already, but the authorities have finally caught up to him,” Baskin hoped.
“Joe Exotic” got caught trying to hire a hit man to kill Baskin, after she had repeatedly exposed him and finally successfully sued him.
“Joe Exotic” is now serving 22 years in federal prison for his trouble. His animal facilities have been closed and are to be demolished.
Big Cat Public Safety Act
“Antle and Mario Tabraue, who were both in Tiger King, Murder, Mayhem and Madness, have been the loudest voices against the Big Cat Public Safety Act,” Baskin recalled.
The Big Cat Public Safety Act, currently stalled in Congressional committee, is a federal bill which, if passed, would “end cub handling and phase out private possession of big cats,” Baskin summarized.
Suggested Baskin, “Maybe the holdout members of Congress will rethink who they listen to now.”
The original kingpin of tiger petting facilities may have been John Weinhart, 1942-2015, who for about 30 years operated a facility called Tiger Rescue at sites in Glen Avon and Colton, California. Fifty-four live tigers, 30 dead adult tigers, and 58 dead tiger cubs were in December 2002 found at the Tiger Rescue premises.
Weinhart was in February 2005 convicted of multiple related felonies.
But by then Weinhart had a multitude of emulators in the business of practicing tiger exhibition and cub handling in the guise of doing rescue and conservation work, though probably none ever acknowledged Tiger Rescue as their model.
“Incessantly breeds tiger cubs”
“Antle operates two facilities in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina,” describes a Big Cat Rescue web page about him, “that offer cub handling and photo ops for a fee. One is a retail location called Preservation Station in a tourist area of town near the beach. The other is his zoo or park.
“He incessantly breeds tiger cubs to use to make money at these locations,” Big Cat Rescue charged. “From what we are told by visitors, the cubs are taken to the retail location where they are subjected to being placed with and handled by person after person for a number of hours each day. Then the cubs are taken back to the zoo, where they are subjected to more handling and photos. Antle also takes cubs on the road to exhibit far from home at fairs or other venues, forcing the tiny cubs to ride long distances in a truck, only to be handled by person after person for hours to make money.”
The Lettuce King
Antle’s “full name is Mahamayavia Bhagavan Antle, though he has gone by the name Kevin,” reported Nashville Tennessean staff writer Ellen Dahnke on March 11, 1990, exposing many of the inconsistencies in Antle’s background but missing several of the biggest.
A brochure that Antle distributed “says Antle grew up on a huge ranch in Arizona, where he first learned to care for animals, and was later educated abroad,” Dahnke continued.
The mention of Arizona suggests Antle may have been attaching himself to the Arizona-based Tanimura & Antle produce empire––but four generations of Antles in Arizona have raised lettuce, not animals.
Obituaries for Robert V. Antle, 1935-2014, the third generation lettuce empire magnate, list no relatives named either Kevin, Mahamayavia, or Bhagavan.
“Name on my mother’s side”
There have been other Antle families in Arizona, some of them notorious. For instance, a Michael B. Antle, 28, was in January 1977 arrested at his parents’ home in Tucson and charged with murdering Terry Lee Bainbridge, also 28, who was pregnant. Her eight-year-old daughter fled 10 miles into the desert, where she was found alive by a prospector the following morning.
But there seems to be nothing directly linking Kevin Antle to any Antle in Arizona––now or ever.
“The name Bhagavan, by which Antle is known on official USDA documents, was a ‘name on my mother’s side of the family,’ he said,” wrote Ellen Dahnke.
“Antle said he started using the name Kevin,” Dahnke recounted, “because he did not want to be confused with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the late guru whose followers took over a village in Oregon.”
Neither Mahamayavia Bhagavan Antle nor Kevin Antle is exactly a common name.
In actuality, Kevin Antle appears to have been Kevin Antle from birth, one of 12 children raised by World War II veteran and foundry inspector Jack D. Antle Sr. and the former Arlene Nichols, married in St. Louis, Missouri, in April 1950.
“Bhagavan” does not appear to have been a name on record in Arlene Nichols’ family history.
Working for Sivyer Steel from 1952 to 1983, according to his obituary, Jack Antle Sr. and family probably moved to Bettendorf, Iowa, population 20,000, when the company moved there in 1962. Much of the Antle family remains in and around Bettendorf.
Arlene Nichols Antle died in 1985; Jack D. Antle Sr. in 2003. His obituary mentioned Kevin, as did the obituary for Kevin’s brother Scott, a year younger, who died in 2014.
A foul-up, a fumble & a “meaningless layup”
Standing 5’8”, weighing 160 pounds, not far from Bhagavan Antle’s adult height, Kevin Antle played high school football and basketball in Bettendorf.
As an athlete, Kevin Antle was rarely noted by the Muscatine Journal and Cedar Rapids Gazette. But he was mentioned, as a freshman quarterback, for having “fouled up a snap from center.” As a junior Antle fumbled on his own seven-yard line, scored 14 points in what appears to have been his best basketball game, and later scored “a meaningless layup with 20 seconds left that was immediately negated by two free throws.”
As a senior, in one of his last games in February 1977, Antle hit “his only points on two free throws,” after having scored four points in a game a few days earlier.
Kevin Antle also turned up in print in July 1975 as an usher at his elder sister Penny’s wedding in Fairfield, Iowa.
After that, no Kevin or Bhagavan Antle won page space for almost a decade.
Claims degrees from schools that don’t exist
Presumably Antle was pursuing an education somewhere, but it is quite unclear how he might have done this and who his teachers might have been.
“Antle, who lists himself as having a doctorate, said he has documents showing his degrees from the British College of Natural Science in Poole, England, and the Chinese Science Federation,” reported Dahnke.
“The library in Poole had no record of the institution there, which Antle said closed in 1984. The British Ministry of Education said it also could not find evidence of the school,” Dahnke wrote.
“It did not have a royal charter,” an official told Dahnke, “although until 1988 independents did not necessarily have to register anywhere. The law was changed then to ensure that only registered schools could give out degrees,” the official explained to Dahnke.
NewspaperArchive, which includes British media going back nearly 400 years, likewise includes no mention of a “British College of Natural Science.”
Neither does NewspaperArchive, Google Search, or anywhere else, appear to have any record of a “Chinese Science Federation,” except in mentions of Antle.
Mentor was Jack Hanna?
“Getting a degree abroad is different than it is here,” Antle told Dahnke.
Animal Underworld author Alan Green in 1999 introduced Antle as “an assistant to Jack Hanna,” a now retired longtime television personality, director of the Columbus Zoo, and spokesperson for SeaWorld, during Hanna’s “appearances on Good Morning America and Late Night With David Letterman.”
This would appear to have been in the early-to-mid-1980s.
Antle’s whereabouts appear to be next authenticated when the Janesville Gazette, boosting the King Richard’s Faire traveling show on July 3, 1986, mentioned that “presiding over a mystical menagerie that includes lions, panthers, cheetahs, horses, eagles, and hawks is the wizard Dr. Bhagavan Antle.”
Who trained the Mercury cougar?
Syracuse Post Standard reporter Thomas Barbash on July 6, 1987 described a Renaissance Faire, apparently the same traveling show, featuring Bhagavan Antle with “an Olde English zoo, complete with three tigers, an elephant, and a panther.”
Wrote Barbash, “Antle owns and operates the Buckingham Zoological Park in Buckingham, Virginia, where he says he’s trained the tigers used in Exxon gasoline commercials and the cougars used in Mercury car ads.”
A variety of tigers appeared in Exxon commercials, but Chauncey the puma, who for more than a decade promoted the Ford-Mercury Cougar line of automobiles, was in truth famously trained by Pat Derby (1944-2013).
Derby recounted that experience at length in her 1976 memoir The Lady & Her Tiger, co-authored with Peter Beagle. Derby left animal training to cofound the Performing Animal Welfare Society with her longtime partner Ed Stewart in 1984.
Sued over hand injury
Concluded Barbash, “Antle feeds his tigers enough raw meat to keep them stuffed during the day, enabling him to use them for snapshots with Faire visitors.”
Two years later, in February 1986, a California man who said his name was Clinton Baron told USDA inspectors that a tiger had seriously mauled his hand at Antle’s Buckingham Zoological Park. Baron reportedly sued Antle for $500,000.
Antle contended that Baron had “slammed his hand in a gate,” reported Ellen Dahnke.
But Dahnke noted that “in a sworn deposition to USDA officials, Antle made no mention of the gate.”
Continued Dahnke, “Baron told the USDA he visited Antle’s Buckingham park to see about jobs for two women he knew. Antle told officials he hired Baron to work on a show in Florida.”
Either way, the lawsuit was either dropped or settled out of court.
“Working with animals for over 25 years” at age 30
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in June 1990 cited Antle for keeping Class 1 dangerous animals at a Class 2 facility.
“Antle said he owns hundreds of animals, has been working with them for over 25 years, and ‘has never had an injury except to an animal trainer,’” wrote Knoxville Journal reporter Karen Kemp.
Antle, at the time, was barely 30 years old.
But in addition to the Buckingham Zoological Park, Antle in 1990 opened The Institute of Greatly Endangered & Rare Species, better known as the T.I.G.E.R.S. Wildlife Park, in Kodak, Tennessee.
Antle was within the next year embroiled in at least seven messy situations, one of which was that he was sued over the T.I.G.E.R.S. Wildlife Park concession contract by one John Heyden of Charlottesville.
Told to quit using Greenpeace & MGM names
Another was that Antle allegedly exhibited a tiger without a permit at a bodybuilding contest on October 6, 1990. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency charged Antle with the offense in October 1991; Antle in 1993 unsuccessfully sued Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency wildlife officer Tony Proffit and regional director Bill Yambert for allegedly denying T.I.G.E.R.S. Wildlife Park the exhibition permit he had needed.
Antle was meanwhile ordered by Greenpeace USA and MGM to stop using their names and logos in advertising for the T.I.G.E.R.S. Wildlife Park that allegedly implied Antle had some association with them.
The Greenpeace USA and MGM correspondence was obtained by Don Elroy (1953-2013), then co-director of the Tennessee Network for Animals. Elroy arranged for Sue Pressman, previously director of captive wildlife for the Humane Society of the United States, to inspect the T.I.G.E.R.S. Wildlife Park with him.
Flunked Pressman inspection
Pressman told the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, and local media, that she found multiple alleged sanitary violations, a dangerously low perimeter fence that might allow animals to escape, a fence enclosing tigers that was configured in a way that could allow them to climb out, and an elephant chained without shade and water.
Elroy further questioned the accuracy of USDA-APHIS registration data on some of Antle’s animals.
Also in 1991, Joseph and Mary Lynn Parker, who later founded the also controversial Tiger Haven sanctuary in Kingwood, Tennessee, sued Antle over custody of a tiger cub named India, whom they had raised for eight months.
According to a March 1991 account by Mountain Press reporter Jeff Talent, a Sevier County judge ordered that India be returned to the Parkers. Antle instead transported India first to the Buckingham Zoological Park and then “to a breeding facility out of state,” Talent wrote.
Ellen Dahnke of the Knoxville Tennessean in July 1991 reported that Antle had split with former partner Mike Stuart after trying to start a zoo in Cheatham County on the site of the former Tennessee Game Farm.
Wrote Dahnke, “Denise Singer, who lives next door to the property, reported in April  that employees of the zoo, using a high-powered weapon, had shot her dog and her father-in-law’s dog. There was also a report that an eland, an African antelope, had escaped from the zoo property, but was later recovered.”
The Animal Rescue League of Boston in October 1991 complained to USDA-APHIS and the Massachusetts Division of Wildlife that Antle and handlers working for him were seen hitting tigers at a fair in Carver, Massachusetts. Antle claimed he hit the tigers only when they became too aggressive while posing for photos with customers.
Trouble in New England
Further investigation found that Antle failed to list a cougar among the animals he brought to the state and had overstayed his permit, according to Tom French, then assistant director of the Massachusetts Division of Wildlife.
Asked to leave Massachusetts within 24 hours, Antle returned to Massachusetts without the knowledge of the Massachusetts Division of Wildlife, operating under another business name. This caused French to declare that Antle would no longer be issued permits to exhibit animals in Massachusetts.
Also in October 1991, in Manchester, New Hampshire, Antle was charged with allowing a six-year-old tiger to come in contact with local model Shannon Audley, 23. Audley was bitten on side of head.
Antle was in November 1991 ordered to pay civil penalty of $3,500 to the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service for the incident. The penalty reportedly remained unpaid for at least three years.
“The Zoo Man”
Probably the most notorious episode in Antle’s past was the arrest on October 21, 1992 of elephant trainer Thomas Dee Huskey, then 32, as a suspect in the recent murders of at least four prostitutes.
Apparently known to local prostitutes as “The Zoo Man,” Huskey worked at the Knoxville Zoo for two years, where his father had also been an elephant keeper, but was fired in November 1990 for allegedly abusing elephants.
Huskey later worked for Antle, reported the late Don Elroy, who was also a licensed private investigator.
Huskey, when arrested for the murders, was believed to have recently traveled to Boston, Massachusetts, and Rochester, New York, with King Richard’s Renaissance Faire––the same traveling show that Antle had been part of.
Huskey was also suspected, but not charged, with killing four prostitutes who were found dead near Rochester in September 1992.
Pleading insanity by reason of having multiple personalities, Huskey in 1999 won a mistrial, and in 2010 beat the murder charges against him on grounds that several confessions were coerced, but continues to serve a 64-year sentence for rape.
“You have a right to be killed by your own tiger”
What, if anything, Antle may have known about Huskey’s activities outside of working hours has never been clear. Antle appears to have never spoken about Huskey on the record.
Antle himself next ran into trouble in December 1993 in Sevier County, Tennessee, for allegedly transporting a bull and cow without health certificates. He was fined $1000 for this offense in December 1994.
Antle for quite a while after that seems to have been either relatively quiet, or at least outdone in flamboyance by others in the tiger exhibition business.
But Antle did raise eyebrows with a 2005 letter to the Phoenix Exotic Wildlife Association, asserting “I still think this is your right to have your own tiger and to be killed by your own tiger. Just keep it in a cage forever and don’t let anyone else near you or watch you have it happen.”
Concluded Antle, “I often say that as an M.D.,” which he is not, “I can talk you through taking out someone’s kidney, but I cannot talk you through tiger training. You have to live it to understand it.”
He signed off as “Dr. Bhagavan Antle.”
Swimming with the tigers
Antle particularly annoyed Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue when the CBS television magazine program Inside Edition on November 12, 2008 aired video of visitors to T.I.G.E.R.S. swimming with tigers, “flagrantly disregarding USDA’s big cat policies,” Baskin charged, without USDA-APHIS taking action against him.
But USDA-APHIS was in truth still well aware of Antle.
In May 2009, Baskin learned, Antle was identified as the source of two tigers who were relayed from Antle’s South Carolina facility to Mario S. Tabraue of Zoological Imports, in Miami, Florida.
Thunderhawk, Baskin explained on the Big Cat Rescue web site, “had already lost his USDA license and had abandoned 75 tigers in Palm Bay, Florida,” where Thunderhawk had run “a ‘pay to play’ operation whereby patrons paid to pet and pose with big cats. Tabraue admitted to falsifying records to make it look as if he had purchased directly from Antle and that Antle had delivered the tigers.”
Tabraue, a convicted cocaine and marijuana smuggler, was sentenced in 1989 to serve 100 years in federal prison for his part in dismembering and burning the remains of former federal informant Larry Vance Nash, who was allegedly killed by Tabraue associate Miguel A. Ramirez in 1980.
Despite that, Tabraue was released from prison in just 12 years, at request of assistant U.S. attorney M. Patrick Sullivan, after providing evidence which helped to convict several lesser drug traffickers. Ramirez also turned federal witness, and was released from prison in 1996.
Antle himself ran into trouble in Miami on August 29, 2010, charged with one count of maintaining captive wildlife in an unsafe condition, resulting in threats to public safety, after one of his tigers, a three-year-old named Mahesh, “bounded over a 14-foot fence into a public area” at a facility called Jungle Island, reported the Miami Herald.
Lieutenant Ignatius Carroll of Miami Fire Rescue told the Miami Herald that several Jungle Island visitors were injured during the incident, including a mother who fell on top of her 15-month old baby, but no one was directly injured by the tiger.
Rare Species Fund
How lucrative is the tiger exhibition business for Antle?
Antle operates at least partially under the umbrella of a nonprofit organization called the Preservation Station, doing business as the Rare Species Fund. IRS Form 900 filings from the years 2016-2018 show that the Rare Species Fund raised $1,657,942 from 2012 through 2018, an average of $276,324 per year, but the filings include no specifics as to how the money is used beyond the three-word statement “Wildlife conservation/education.”
Very likely the Rare Species Fund handles only a fraction of the revenue raised by Antle’s multiple business entities.
“I am a guy that does date”
The Netflix series Tiger King “alleged he killed tiger cubs when they were no longer cute and kept a harem of wives and girlfriends––claims he denied,” summarized Emma Parry for TMX.news.
“Responding to claims he has a harem of women,” Parry wrote, “he added, ‘I am a guy that does date. I live alone in my house. I have a few girlfriends now and they certainly know about each other, but I am by no means married to anybody or have a harem like they are suggesting.”
Those rumors have been around at least since Ellen Dahnke’s investigations for the Knoxville Tennesseean in 1990-1991.
The most meaningful testimony on that subject may be former T.I.G.E.R.S. apprentice Barbara Fisher’s 2017 memoir “How to Make an Extremist,” published by the Iowa Informer, Elle, and Rolling Stone: http://iowainformer.com/commentary/2017/03/bhagavan-doc-antle-rolling-stone-tigers/. Fisher also told her story in Tiger King.
“Middle class white girl from Ames, Iowa”
Opened Fisher, “I’m a middle class white girl from Ames, Iowa,” about a three-hour drive from Bettendorf.
“When I was 19,” Fisher recalled, “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.
“I decided to run off with the circus. I discovered the T.I.G.E.R.S. web site, read about the two-year apprenticeship, was shortly accepted, and dropped everything to go to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and begin.
“An average workday lasted from eight in the morning to well past midnight,” Fisher wrote, “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.
Returned to ordinary Iowa life
“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.”
Leaving the alleged Antle cult, Fisher detailed, took her eight years.
“By the spring of 2007, I had decided to leave,” Fisher said. “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.”
Fisher returned to the ordinary Iowa life from which Antle has for so long sought to escape ever being identified with.