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.”
The tour members press their faces against the glass. Antle believes the hybrid cat lacks a growth-inhibiting gene. As a result, Sinbad weighs a staggering 922 pounds. His limbs and torso are braided with muscle, and his head is the size of an end table. (And thanks in part to Napoleon Dynamite he’s terrifically popular.) A thin young man with long hair walks it back and forth by a chain. “That brave guy at the end of the leash is Kody Antle,” Mari says. “Doc Antle’s son. He was raised here on the preserve, with tiger cubs and monkey cubs in his crib. So that’s a real-life Tarzan.”
After taking pictures with the liger and meeting a cheetah named Rameses – who, Mari says, “loves to lay on the big dining room table and watch National Geographic” – the group moves to a large wooden circle with a two-foot perimeter wall. A handful of younger trainers arrive with furry bundles in their arms. One gets deposited in my lap. “This is Jaga – he’s a six-week-old lion cub,” the trainer says. Jaga is about the size of a standard Chihuahua, but thicker, and covered with luxuriantly soft fur. His paws are huge, though the T.I.G.E.R.S. staff trims the tips of his claws (they do this with the adult cats too, I’m told, because the claws would otherwise enter human skin like it’s “warm butter”).
Other lion and tiger cubs are loose now, too, and the tour group is a chorus of cooing and baby-talk: “Ooh, look at you!” “Hi, baby lion!” “I love you!” A larger white tiger cub seems agitated. He keeps running into the center of the circle, away from the guests, making distressed noises that sound like an attempt at a roar. When I ask about this, a trainer says he’s “just talking.” One guest says she wants to take a cub home. “If you can figure out how to keep ‘em this size,” Kody Antle says, “I’ll get you one.”
Antle’s isn’t the only U.S. park that offers cub petting – by the Humane Society’s count, as many as 80 others have operated in the last five years – but it is the largest and most sophisticated. T.I.G.E.R.S. also operates a satellite storefront at an outdoor mall in Myrtle Beach that sells cub photos every summer evening, and a smaller facility in Miami that performs a big cat show at the Jungle Island amusement park. Antle told me he breeds about 10 to 15 new cubs every season to sustain these operations. And therein lies the rub.
The cubs born at Antle’s place will grow into adult tigers that weigh 300 to 500 pounds and eat $5,000 to $10,000 worth of food a year. The park keeps about 70 of its best-behaving, most human-friendly adult tigers (many of the adult males are castrated), but it only has room to keep a handful of newborns. Because his cats aren’t bred through an official species management program – for instance, Antle doesn’t keep track of whether an Amur tiger mates with a Malayan – mainstream zoos usually won’t take them. So a central question asked of Doc Antle is: Where do all the other tigers end up?
The World Wildlife Fund and other groups estimate that there are some 5,000 captive tigers in the United States alone – far more than the 3,200 believed to remain in the wild. A few hundred of these tigers live in mainstream American zoos, but the rest dwell in parks like T.I.G.E.R.S., or in private citizens’ basements or backyards. One lives at a truck stop in Louisiana. Regulation of wild animals in the U.S. is so spotty that there’s no way to know for sure if the 5,000 estimate is correct, or if Antle is right when he tells me that “there are no damn pet tigers in America, hardly.” But the view that there are likely thousands of adult tigers living in cages across the U.S. has sparked a widespread campaign to outlaw cub-petting operations like his.
The World Wildlife Fund, the Humane Society of the United States and other organizations are petitioning for regulatory changes that would end all public contact with big cats, bears and primates, effectively putting people like Antle out of business. The Humane Society says Antle supplies cubs to as many as five other private parks – sometimes permanently, sometimes as a loan – and that he could be breeding as many as 50 per season. Last year, with the help of undercover workers, the group tracked a tiger cub named Sarabi born at Antle’s place in South Carolina that was pulled away from its mother at three weeks old, then driven 19 hours to a park called Tiger Safari in Oklahoma. The day Sarabi arrived, the cub was handled by 27 visitors – even though, according to the Human Society, it had ringworm.
Overlooking the wooden ring where T.I.G.E.R.S. guests play with the animals is a large digital clock with numbers glowing in red. The clock is reset when the cubs come out. When it reads 20 minutes, trainers take the furry bundles back to their enclosures. “That’s the whole game for the exploiting of cubs,” Antle tells me later. “It’s really incredibly minimal. The naysayers think that we have hundreds of tiger cubs, which is just insane. What would you do with hundreds of tigers?”
Toward the end of the T.I.G.E.R.S. tour, Antle rides in on Bubbles with two young chimps in his lap. He tells the group the story of how he picked up Bubbles as a calf in South Africa in 1984, after ivory poachers slaughtered both her parents. Antle drove Bubbles home from the airport with her trunk flapping out the window of his pickup truck. As the tourists look on, the elephant now uses that trunk to vacuum up several gallons of Hawaiian Punch from a plastic tube. Antle says Bubbles also consumes four bales of hay, 100 pounds of produce, 100 gallons of water, and a bucket of elephant chow per day. “Bubbles produces Miracle-Gro in huge quantities,” he says, grinning.
A mutual comfort develops between the animals and staff members, who live and work at T.I.G.E.R.S. full-time. “Vali, the chimp I spend a lot of time with, has a complete connection to the Geico gecko,” Antle tells me. “He doesn’t like Flo, from Progressive, particularly. He’ll watch a Flo commercial, because they’re kind of zippy, but he’s a Geico-loving dude.” Moksha, the tour guide, spent eight years with four orangutans snoozing in her bed every night. The chimps really did watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in that movie theater, although everyone nearby was a trainer, and it was juice in their cups, not Coke.
All of T.I.G.E.R.S. staff members must complete an intensive apprenticeship. No formal education is required, but recruits must be single and childless. They cannot expect any time off for any reason. They must be within 20 pounds of their “perfect athletic weight or working to get there,” able to do push-ups, pull-ups, and run a 12-minute mile. They must be vegetarian and can’t smoke or drink. They must have watched The Devil Wears Prada and Kill Bill: Volume 2, to get an idea of what kind of ruthless tutelage to expect. And they must submit a photo. But most of all, they must commit to T.I.G.E.R.S., not simply as a workplace, but as a lifestyle. In return, they’re provided room and board, access to Internet and cable and a stipend.
Antle’s protégés learn to work “in a manner akin to a military series of maneuvers.” Senior staff “get some freedom,” Antle says, but “the new apprentices don’t have as much.” Unsurprisingly, many don’t last. “I tell my apprentices: two years, all you’re going to do is know what we do for a living, but you’re not going to know how we do it,” he says. “In five years, they go, ‘Wow, it’s really complicated.’ And in 10 years, most of them don’t want to do it. It’s too hard to work those cats.”
In Myrtle Beach and Miami, staff members live in or adjacent to the park. “If you just work a couple hours and then leave the animals, they don’t see you as family,” Moksha tells me. “There’s a lot of tigers on the preserve that I’ve spent a lot of time with, but the ones I’ve spent the most time with, they know what my golf cart sounds like, they know what my footsteps sound like. They know I’m mom, I’m their life, I’m their freedom, I give them all the gifts.”
Of course, when a bunch of young, single, attractive people work together, relationships form. Rob lives with Mari, the other tour guide. I hear Antle refer to one of the longtime staff members, Rajani Ferrante, as “my little Italian girlfriend.” He describes a departed staffer as having been “one of my lovely girlfriends for a long time, and then she wasn’t.” Antle and I spend a lot of time during my visit with Moksha, and they seem very close. Antle tells me he isn’t currently married, but wears a ring anyway. “I have been fortunate enough to be a lifelong target of the adoration of the opposite sex,” he says, with a laugh. “Wearing a wedding band keeps some of the honest women at bay.”
As we’re talking, Ferrante and another trainer enter the lodge with a year-old liger, Adonis, on a leash. He’s about the size of a standard German shepherd, and Antle goes over to rub his belly. “How are you, little brown man?” He says. “Are you a good boy?”
Born in 1960, Bhagavan Kevin Antle was raised by a wealthy agricultural family on an industrial farm in Salinas, California. His father was a boxer and put him through martial arts training. His mother, who nurtured an interest in Eastern philosophy and chose her son’s Hindu name, sometimes cared for sick horses and cows in the family kitchen. “Some blend between Rambo and the Dalai Lama – that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up,” he says. Antle spent much of his youth competing in rodeos and training dogs, and didn’t care much for school; he dropped out before the ninth grade. “In my early days,” he says, “drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll was it.”
When most kids his age were heading off to college, he made arrangements through family business connections to go to China. It was there that he earned his “doctor” nickname, studying basic medical training to serve rural populations. He returned to the U.S. a devotee of herbal medicine and yoga. It was the 1980s, and Americans were waking up to the ideas of health food and mindful living. Antle began practicing alternative medicine in the community surrounding the Yogaville ashram in Virginia and found work as a lecturer-guru at Exxon, whose most memorable slogan was, “Put a tiger in your tank.”
He fashioned himself in the mold of the character David Carradine played in the TV show Kung Fu. “I said okay, if I was this character, I should have a giant tiger that acts like a pet.” In 1982, Antle acquired a 100-pound tiger cub through a friend with zoo connections. He says it took six months, with the help of his pet Rottweilers, before the cat would even let him touch it. Eventually, the tiger cub and his dogs got along – this was his first animal friendship – and within a year Antle had trained the big cat to lay calmly on a table.
He began bringing it to Exxon conferences, where one visitor asked to have a picture taken with the tiger. Then another person asked, and another. Antle sent his assistant to get a couple of Polaroid cameras and a bundle of film. “He comes back and I say, ‘Five bucks, take your picture with this tiger!’ I was there ‘till midnight. Every single person wanted to sit with that tiger and get a Polaroid.”
He’s been doing some form of that ever since, taking cats to renaissance fairs, carnivals, malls, conventions, anywhere with a crowd. But in the early years, he says, he never realized the full range of photo opportunities around him. “I could kick myself for a hundred incredible stories that I missed,” he says. “I have a few old pictures of [Bubbles] washing dishes in the sink, but I have very few pictures of that little 36-inch-tall elephant running around and being my sidekick, which was an all-day, everyday affair.”
In 1994, Antle was hired to work on a remake of The Jungle Book; then Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and Mighty Joe Young. He earned enough to buy the Myrtle Beach property, which had been a multifamily horse ranch. Antle saw an opportunity for the public to travel to his animals, rather than the other way around. At the park, he became the main character of his own four-hour tour, “constantly living in costuming.” The price for photos rose from $5 to $20, and shot up from there. If we assume that T.I.G.E.R.S. averages 45 paying customers per tour, plus 10 photo packages (one per group) for three tours a week, over 26 weeks a year, the Myrtle Beach park alone grosses around $1.3 million annually. (The cub photo storefront, the Miami location and video work bring in millions more.) “I’m a snake-oil salesman,” he says, with a laugh. “I’ve always done really well financially.”
In 2005, Antle was prohibited by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) from letting the public close to adult cats. “There is not sufficient distance or barriers between the animals and the public to assure the safety of the public or the animals,” the department ruled. He fought the decision unsuccessfully in court. “I cannot have people meet big cats anymore,” Antle explains. “I think that’s sad news for everybody.” The current patchwork of policies allows visitors to hold cats between eight and twelve weeks old (Antle says the lion cub I held might have been six weeks old). Because of the tight window, Antle makes no apology for charging “a ton.” “We look for the price point that makes us very good, solid money, but where the amount of interactions is as low as possible,” he says. “We want the wildlife to not get too worn out.”
But even at these prices, Antle insists, no one is getting rich on tiger cub photos: “All of that money that I had, which is millions of dollars over time, it’s all long gone. It didn’t go to my extravagant lifestyle. It went to building the business.” The business is essentially his own personal Shangri-La: An idyllic 50-acre enclosure where Antle can walk his tigers and ride his elephant, and where he can let a small group of visitors experience the visceral thrills of living among some of nature’s wildest beasts. “I swear it does something to you,” he says of getting close to his animals. “It makes you feel different. You make that connection, and you feel like a tiger still needs to be in the jungle.”
The network of nonprofit animal sanctuaries in the U.S. stretches from Florida to California, and includes some former exotic pet owners who came to see the errors of their ways. Tim Harrison, a mustachioed retired police officer from a suburban town near Dayton, Ohio says he used to be “a Doc Antle kind of guy.” Ohio was one of six states, along with South Carolina, that let residents keep tigers and other big cats without any special permits. In his years as a policeman, he often got the call when nearby exotic pet owners lost control. He’d show up to find an apartment full of venomous tropical snakes, or a sick lion running down the street.
Harrison kept some of the animals he rescued. He tells stories of wrestling a 200-pound lion in a bathtub, of wolves running around his yard. Then he went on safari in Kenya, and saw giraffes running wild through the Serengeti. Some people he knew in Ohio kept giraffes in a barn; these didn’t look or act like those. Later on the trip, he watched a male lion in the wild. “You could see the difference in the eyes, how he looked at you,” Harrison remembers. “I’ve been through it all, and I never saw a cat in captivity look like that first male lion I saw. It opened up the world to me.”
Harrison came back to Ohio and gave all his exotic animals away to sanctuaries. He didn’t want to be a warden for captives, and didn’t want to support what he now saw as the noxious trade in wild pets. In 1991, Harrison founded Outreach for Animals, a small sanctuary that only accepts animals if owners swear off keeping exotic pets. (Ohio banned exotic pets in 2014, three years after a Zanesville man named Terry Thompson released his personal menagerie and then killed himself; Harrison was on hand as officers gunned down 18 of Thompson’s tigers, 17 lions, and 15 other animals.) He looks at the estimate of 5,000 captive tigers in the U.S. and says that, if anything, it’s low. “The market is totally saturated,” Harrison says, and “the biggest offenders are people like Doc Antle.”
None of the sanctuary owners I spoke with, however, could definitively trace any rescued cats back to T.I.G.E.R.S. But like Sarabi, the ringworm-afflicted cub, they did know of cats that had gone from Antle to private exhibitors they consider disreputable. No federal law governs the possession of big cats, and there is little federal oversight of breeding. In states that don’t have their own permitting rules, like South Carolina, the task of regulating facilities that display animals to the public falls on the Department of Agriculture. The same agency that oversees national forests and private farms, that grades supermarket beef, also monitors the cats at Antle’s place in Myrtle Beach. (Private big cat owners in these states who don’t exhibit are totally unregulated.)
USDA inspectors visit T.I.G.E.R.S. several times a year, and issue reports noting any violations of the Animal Welfare Act, whether a filthy enclosure or a broken light fixture. Anna Frostic, an attorney at the Humane Society, says inspectors sometimes count only the animals they see, or ask owners for a written list, which may not be up to date. A spokesperson for the USDA denied this, saying inspectors count all animals present on every visit, and check paperwork regarding acquisitions and transfers. Antle also says the inventories are accurate and thorough: “One of the ‘big scams’ is that somehow there are animals being born that are not accounted for,” he says. “That’s totally bullshit. [Inspectors] come, they do an inventory. It’s the main thing they do.”
Antle emphatically denies that his tigers end up in private backyards or “crappy zoos.” When his cats reach four to eight months old, he sends the ones he can’t keep to parks all over the world, including locations in Argentina, Thailand and California. He says he often delivers the animals in person. “Usually the animals we’re bringing are dog-tamed super-sweet kids that will come out and sit with me and some of my fabulous-looking staff,” he says. “Probably the biggest thing we’re looking to vet for foreign zoos is that they’re big, expensive, nice properties where they run a high-end collection.” His accrediting group, the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), which also regulates snake farms in Texas and the flamingos at their namesake hotel in Las Vegas, prohibits him from transferring cats to any inadequate facility. “If you have a backyard cage,” he says, “I could not give you a tiger.”
Still, Antle admits that he has given cats to parks that have no accreditation at all, like Tiger Safari in Oklahoma, where Sarabi ended up. “I’ve got places that aren’t ZAA-accredited that have taken some of my animals, and they may be controversial, but the habitats, the places they’re keeping them, the food, the veterinary care is all high-end stuff, and they also must have years and years of experience.” The Humane Society’s 2014 undercover investigation of Tiger Safari found “infant cubs in severe distress when handled by the public, and that Tiger Safari uses over-feeding and harsh discipline to make larger cubs more lethargic.” But Antle defends his relationship with the park. “Tiger Safari is a nice property,” he says. “They’ve had probably half a dozen of my tigers over the years. I like the guy, I like his place, I love his veterinarian.”
Even still, a number of Antle’s critics suggest the specific conditions of a roadside zoo misses the point. “I fully understand why people walk into these facilities and think they’re doing good work,” Leigh Henry, a policy officer at the World Wildlife Fund, told me. “I would, frankly, love to play with a tiger cub. But I think you have to weigh the cost-benefit there, of how many tiger cubs are being generated, and what’s happening to them once they’re no longer useful.”
Antle treats his naysayers with something like bemused annoyance. “They think they know what I do, and they don’t,” he says. “They got some Ph.Ds, they studied some stuff, they have no hands-on experience whatsoever…They’re not animal trainers, they have no way to make a bridged communication between themselves and that animal to establish a relationship where the animal is not going to become aggressive. They don’t even know it’s possible, because they didn’t do it to a horse. Their dog doesn’t listen.”
Antle told me that about 10 percent of T.I.G.E.R.S.’ annual revenue goes to a nonprofit called the Rare Species Fund, which supports conservation projects around the world. In 2013, the most recent year that financial reports are available, the Fund reportedly spent $78,370 on “wildlife conservation.” In the last three years, Antle contributed $40,000 to the Corbett Foundation, which does tiger work in India. He also sponsored Dr. Jim Sanderson, whose Small Cat Conservation Alliance helps lesser-known endangered felines like the Andean cat. Sanderson says Doc is probably his biggest contributor, having given him $20,000 last year. “If I need funds yesterday,” he says, “I am 100 percent certain that if I ask Doc, I will receive.”
Around 2008, Anjana the chimp was with her trainers, who were hand-raising two white tiger cubs, and started mimicking aspects of care – petting the cubs and letting them suck or chew on her fingers. “The level that Anjana the chimpanzee put into taking care of those cubs was just organic,” Antle says.
Barry Bland, a freelance photographer who often shoots for the Daily Mail in London, was around taking pictures at the park. “This will walk its way straight to the front page,” Bland said. Antle was surprised. “Why?” He asked.
“Because this is what people want,” Bland said.
When the images hit the Daily Mail, “it exploded unbelievably,” Antle says. “The craze of animal friendships had not happened. We were at the forefront of a lot of whatever was taking off. It trended the world – it was just the feel-good phenomenon.”
Around that time, Antle, Moksha, and Suryia, then a young orangutan, were riding Bubbles to the waterway for a swim. A feral hound started running behind the elephant. Suryia hadn’t been interested in dogs before, but quickly jumped down and started wrestling with this one. It followed them back to the compound, frolicking with Suryia the whole time. On its own, Antle says, the orangutan started sharing his food with the dog, who Moksha adopted and named Roscoe. Almost immediately, they were inseparable. “Seemed like a destined pair waiting to get together, like they had an established relationship,” Antle says.
Suryia and Roscoe became the best-known animal friendship at T.I.G.E.R.S. – on the tour, staff members hand guests a glossy booklet entitled “Animal Friendships of the Myrtle Beach Safari,” with the pair on the cover. Antle contracted with a publishing company to release a children’s book about the two of them. They appeared on Oprah. He claims that a video of them shot for National Geographic Channel has been watched 95 million times, although this is difficult to verify. T.I.G.E.R.S. runs its own YouTube channel, but much of its content is scattered across various outlets and platforms. A google search for “dog and orangutan” brings up 878,000 results.
Animals raised with their needs for food, comfort and variety of experience always more than met, Antle says, grow exceedingly comfortable around humans and other animals, and thus exhibit behaviors – like friendships – that wild and zoo animals do not. The presence of a familiar trainer doesn’t inspire curiosity in them. But the presence of a stranger does. Production crews used to spend days in the park without getting anything useful. “The apes would just immediately be like, ‘What do you got? What’s in your pocket?'” Antle says. “All normalcy goes out the window.”
For this reason, there can be no animal friendships on the tour. If a crowd of people entered a space with, say, Suryia and Roscoe, “the whole animal friendship model is kapoof. They’re now going to enjoin with the people that are there to observe them.” His staff members subsequently film most of the footage for outside production companies. (During the tour, Rob Johnson, the wisecracker, proudly mentions that he personally shot the Suryia and Roscoe clips in a Google Android ad that’s been viewed nearly 20 million times on YouTube.)
Though Antle is certainly aware of their effectiveness as marketing tools, he insists all of the famous friendships at T.I.G.E.R.S. are natural. Suryia was three or four when he first took to Roscoe, and played like a human of the same age. He’s now matured and, Antle says, a lot of his sweetness has been replaced with an adult primate’s urge for sex. As he talks about Suryia’s development, Antle’s voice tightens into a condensed monotone, and his eyes redden. “By the time he’s five, I’m like, God, I wish I could find Jiminy Cricket, because I need a real-life boy,” he says. “I like this orangutan so much, I want to have him in my life. But he turned into a macho dude. What are you going to do? Kody did the same thing. But I probably got along with my orangutan better than my son.”
After watching Bubbles stroll down Antle’s street toward her usual Wednesday bath, I accept an invitation to swim with the elephant. As soon as I hit the water, Bubbles runs her trunk between my legs and hoists me into the air. In a second, I’m on her head. Then I’m on her back, feet in the water, astounded. Her hide feels like living asphalt; her ears – satiny on the insides – slap against my skin. Maybe this is a trained behavior. But I think I can feel Bubbles’ curiosity, her intelligence, her irreverence; I start to understand her playfulness.
But on my final day in Myrtle Beach, amidst all the reveries and cute photos, one animal experience made me wary. A photographer came to take a portrait of Antle for this story. Before even setting up the shoot, we’d had to negotiate what could be pictured. “Can’t shoot cages,” he told us. “If you do chain link, it’ll look like we’re shooting pictures in a prison.” He was uncertain about letting an outside photographer come at all. “We don’t want that level of control to be outside of our hands,” he said.
When the lights were ready, Antle arrived with Bubbles. China, another young, pretty female trainer, brought a chimp. Moksha walked over with a huge African eagle on her arm. The idea was to get them all together in one shot: friendly animals, with their people. Almost immediately, every living thing freaked out.
The chimp, seeing the eagle, tore out of Antle’s arms and ran away shrieking. China twice coaxed it back into Antle’s grasp, only to have it flee, crying, twice more. The eagle wanted to escape the wailing chimp, but was anchored to Moksha, so it ended up hanging upside down from her glove, flapping its wings in a panic. Bubbles was the most cooperative, but only because the trainers kept throwing potato chips under her trunk to keep her in one spot.
For our purposes, the animals were behaving badly – Antle kept disclaiming that they hadn’t had time to acclimate – but weren’t the animals also behaving normally? Wasn’t a young chimp right to be terrified of a huge eagle, and equally mistrustful of the humans who sent him repeatedly near it?
The first thing to go was the eagle. That calmed the chimp down enough to sit in Antle’s arms. Then Bubbles started getting restless under the glare of the afternoon sun. With the chimp getting bored, the trainers made silly noises to get him to look toward the camera. As everyone grew sweaty, Antle’s warmth wore into impatience, and he began barking orders and frustrated outbursts at China and Moksha – “Staff! Staff! Motherfucker!”
The photo we sought wasn’t going to come naturally. It would take coaxing and patience, even force. Almost everything else at T.I.G.E.R.S., from the scripted tour to the trainers living in costumes, was a performance. Now, we were trying to get a cute animal interaction for the camera, and the picture became a performance, too.
As usual, Antle was at the center of it: sweating and smiling in his perpetual khaki, inducing docility from dangerous animals, spending millions on raw meat and landscapers, constantly training new apprentices to properly shovel shit, forever battling welfare groups who will use virtually any tactic to shut him down. That is the real Doc Antle – and, most strangely, it all seems to come absolutely naturally to him. Even as the sun beats and Bubbles turns to dismember another expensive tree, he only barely shows the strain of this relentless performance. “I’m unbelievably lucky,” Antle tells me. “If there is a charmed life, I’ve already led four of them.”