On a scorching afternoon in July, just inland from the discount swimsuit shops and high-rise hotels of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, an elephant named Bubbles tromps past groomed lawns and gleaming pickup trucks on a quiet residential street. On her back, nine feet off the pavement, clad head-to-thigh in khaki, a blond ponytail swinging against his back, sits Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the founder and director of The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species, or T.I.G.E.R.S. They lumber into the yard of Antle’s two-story colonial, set on a narrow stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway. “Let me off, you big cow!” Antle hollers, as he climbs onto a high wooden platform. He plans to lead Bubbles to the waterfront for a swim, but the 9,000-pound loxodonta shuffles toward a nearby sapling instead, and starts tearing off branches. “Come here, Bub Bub,” Antle bellows. “I don’t want to chase you!”
On television and YouTube, Doc Antle makes this look easy. His private park is arguably the world capital of interspecies animal friendships – those cute-fest documentaries and photo listicles of romping orangutans and stray hounds; chimps and tiger cubs; elephants and black labs. Recently, he and his staff made viral videos by taking chimps to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and letting them drive toy electric cars in a clip called “The Fast and the Furry-ous.” “What we’ve seen that really resonates is that connection where some kind of wildlife is getting along,” Antle says. “It translates back that, look, we can all get along. That orangutan loves that dog – why can’t it work in Palestine?”
Animal friendships are not the only heartstring-tugging image that comes out of T.I.G.E.R.S. The place bills itself as offering “the greatest hands-on animal experience in the world.” Its core business is housing people-friendly lions and tigers, and selling pictures of customers holding their cubs. Tours, offered three times a week during the summer, cost $339 per person; professional photos start at $150 (personal photos and video are forbidden). That’s a lot more expensive than a zoo. But no zoo – or, at least, no mainstream zoo in the U.S. – breeds baby apex predators for guests to play with.
Antle is the alpha male of the compound. Boisterous and brawny at 55, with a soul patch the same blond as his pony tail, he has three decades of experience training big cats, apes and elephants. He and his 12 staff members don’t simply care for the animals; they live with them – Tarzans and Janes with iPhones, feeding orangutans Chipotle burritos. “The whole thing takes place because of this lifestyle where we’re so connected to the animals, and the needs that they have are fulfilled in such a broad way,” he says. “A huge zoo habitat is crap compared to letting them be out, changing environments, changing scenery, going for a swim, going for a walk.”
While Antle considers himself a sympathetic iconoclast, a born trainer with a platform for protecting the natural world, critics see only a clever businessman flouting the established wisdom of how to humanely keep exotic creatures. Zoo experts and animal welfare activists, in turn, accuse Antle of causing “the suffering of hundreds of tigers in the U.S” that “end up living miserable lives in conditions compassionate people who care about animals would consider inhumane.” All in the name of something the public largely cannot resist – adorable animal encounters. Where Antle preaches conservation, his detractors see intense commercialism; in his viral content of wildlife getting along, they see only clever marketing.
One of the first things I learn behind the park’s unmarked bamboo gates, where the wide green lawns are immaculate and wooden bridges stretch across gator-filled pools, is that, for Doc Antle, there is no such thing as a valid critic of Doc Antle. “The Vegan World Order characters say that there is no animal interaction that actually works out,” he says (Antle is a lifelong vegetarian, which in no way diminishes his disgust for vegans). “It’s like being jihadist – they believe that there’s another way to interpret the world. I don’t think they’re the happiest of people.”
When we say no cameras, we also mean no Google glasses, no spy watches,” says Rob Johnson, a longtime staffer who wears an Aussie bush hat and a Bowie knife while going over the rules of the Myrtle Beach Safari in T.I.G.E.R.S. gravel parking lot. “If you do that, you will be ejected from the park – with a catapult. We’ve got one sitting right back there.”
Surrounding me is a crowd of about 70: mostly middle-aged adults, a few kids (you have to be at least six to enter) and a smattering of retirees. In the safari-themed lodge, half a dozen TVs play videos on a loop of, among other things, Antle’s six appearances on The Tonight Show and Britney Spears performing at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards in front of a big cat. Behind her, holding its leash, is Antle. “We worked with Eddie Murphy on Doctor Dolittle,” Johnson says. “That guy’s afraid of guinea pigs.”
Our tour guides for today are Mari and Moksha, two bubbly young women decked out in animal print and heavy makeup. After some disclaimers and drumming-up of enthusiasm, Mari tells us to turn around. Standing on the other side of a long glass wall is a humungous feline. “My gosh, that thing is huge,” a woman says.
That thing is a liger named Sinbad, the offspring of a male lion and a female tiger. African lions and Asian tigers don’t share territory in the wild, much less breed, but they are kept in the same enclosures at T.I.G.E.R.S. Antle says the two species comingle without much human help. According to the website: “All big cats are stimulation ovulators. That means artificial insemination is impossible. Lions and tigers must be in love to reproduce, and it is only achieved by natural means.”