A wild animal trainer featured in the popular Netflix series Tiger King has been convicted of wildlife trafficking in Virginia, the attorney general’s office announced.
Bhagavan “Doc” Antle was accused of illegally buying endangered lion cubs in Frederick County, Virginia, for display and profit at his South Carolina zoo, attorney general Jason Miyares said in a news release. A jury convicted Antle on Friday (June 16) of two felony counts each of wildlife trafficking and conspiring to wildlife traffick.
Antle, who owns the Myrtle Beach Safari, appeared in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, a Netflix documentary miniseries that focused on tiger breeders. He also appeared in a spin-off, Tiger King: The Doc Antle Story.
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The jury acquitted Antle of five counts of animal cruelty and Judge Alexander Iden dismissed four additional animal cruelty charges against Antle and all charges against his two adult daughters, the Winchester Star reported.
Prosecutor Michelle Welch said Myrtle Beach Safari’s lucrative petting zoo motivated Antle to maintain a steady supply of immature lion cubs that he purchased from Wilson’s Wild Animal Park near Winchester, calling the arrangement a “cub pipeline” from Virginia to South Carolina.
When Antle and Keith Wilson, the park’s former owner, began doing business in 2015, it was still legal to buy and sell lions, Welch said.
But after lions were designated as an endangered species in December 2015, they could only be traded between zoos and wildlife preserves that were part of an established breeding programme and had permits. There were three illegal cub exchanges in 2017, 2018 and 2019, Welch said.
Antle was indicted in 2020 on several offences including felony counts of wildlife trafficking and conspiracy.
In August 2019, 119 animals — including lions, tigers, bears, camels, goats and water buffalo — were seized from Wilson’s roadside zoo after a judge found that Wilson “cruelly treated, neglected or deprived” the animals of adequate care.
Wilson testified that Antle paid him in advance under the guise of a donation. He said Antle paid $2,500 to $3,000 per cub, with the exception of the 2017 transaction when Antle traded three lynx kittens for three lion cubs.
Wilson is charged with nine misdemeanour counts of animal cruelty and 10 felony counts of selling an endangered species and a hearing in his case is scheduled for Friday (June 23).
Defence lawyer Erin Harrigan called Antle’s prosecution politically motivated in response to a growing public outcry against wild animals being exploited for entertainment purposes.
“This has been an agenda in search of a crime from the beginning of the investigation,” Harrigan said. The lawyer maintained that the cubs were gifts and Antle sent Wilson donations for an expanded tiger habitat.
“These were not sales,” she said. The judge allowed Antle, who faces up to 20 years in prison, to remain free on bond pending sentencing on September 14.