By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
Doc Antle, a notorious roadside zoo owner who has been on our radar for years, has been indicted on animal cruelty and wildlife trafficking charges in Virginia.
Attorney General Mark Herring announced the indictment today after a months-long investigation of the trafficking of lions between Wilson’s Wild Animal Park in Virginia and Antle’s Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina. Antle was charged with one felony count of wildlife trafficking, one felony count of conspiracy to wildlife traffic, four misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to violate state law protecting endangered species and nine misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty.
Two of Antle’s daughters, Tawny Antle and Tilakum Watterson, also face misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty and violating state law protecting endangered species. Keith Wilson, who owns Wilson’s Wild Animal Park, faces similar charges.
Antle was recently featured with another notorious roadside zoo owner Joe Exotic a.k.a. Joseph Maldonado Passage, in Netflix’s “Tiger King” series, but our wildlife team has followed his shameless exploitation of tigers for years. At his Myrtle Beach Safari, Antle offers public contact with wild animals, including tiger cubs. The roadside zoo has numerous U.S. Department of Agriculture citations for unsafe caging and handling as well as for failing to provide veterinary care for animals. Hundreds of tigers have been bred there over the years for use in close encounters with paying customers at Antle’s facility and other roadside zoos.
During our 2014 undercover investigations at Tiger Safari in Oklahoma and Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia, we learned that tigers used for breeding at both facilities came from Antle and most of the offspring were sent back to him. Antle gave the owner of Tiger Safari and our undercover investigator a personal tour of his zoo in South Carolina where they saw small, reconfigured horse stalls where dozens of adult tigers were confined. Antle told the investigator that he typically kills all the crossed-eyed tiger cubs born at his facility.
We also know that Antle supplied tigers to Ryan Easley’s ShowMe Tigers traveling circus act, which was the subject of a 2017 HSUS undercover investigation that documented tigers being whipped and cruelly trained behind the scenes, and to magician Jay Owenhouse, who hauls tigers around the country as part of his act. Antle even attempted to expand his cruel business internationally, by exporting 18 tigers to Mexico. Thankfully, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied his request for that permit after the Humane Society of the United States submitted legal comments in collaboration with Humane Society International offices in Mexico and India (where Antle was attempting to funnel a payment to offset this unconscionable trade).
Roadside zoo owners like Antle and Maldonado-Passage falsely claim to be conservationists, but the simple truth is that their work has nothing to do with helping or saving animals. Fortunately, their misdeeds are beginning to unravel as the law catches up with them. Joe Exotic is now in prison for 22 years for plotting the murder of a big cat sanctuary owner and for killing five tigers in his care. Last month we reported that Tim Stark, the owner of Wildlife in Need in Indiana, had his USDA license revoked and his facility closed by the Indiana attorney general; he was arrested this week in New York while trying to evade authorities. And Jeff Lowe, who took over Joe Exotic’s facility, has relinquished his USDA license and is embroiled in legal issues regarding the care of his animals.
We applaud the Virginia and Indiana attorneys general for taking action against these roadside zoo owners who build their businesses on animal cruelty. However, there are hundreds of other wildlife exhibitors still operating around the country with just as much cruelty and impunity, and they need to be stopped as well. That’s why we are urging Congress to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 1380/S. 2561) swiftly. The bill would prohibit public contact with big cats all over the United States, removing the incentive for the rampant breeding of tigers.
Your help is invaluable, as always, in ending this cruelty, so please write to your U.S. Representative and Senators and ask them to pass this important bill without delay.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.