The Bulletin

‘Tiger King’ animal trainer sentenced to $10K fine, no jail time for trafficking lion cubs in Frederick Co.

By: - October 4, 2023 12:01 am

(Kristin Castenschiold/Getty Images)

An animal trainer featured in the popular “Tiger King” documentary and subsequently convicted of illegally purchasing endangered lion cubs in Frederick County, Virginia will face a $10,000 fine but no jail time, the state’s Office of the Attorney General said Tuesday. 

“Today concludes a multi-year investigation and prosecution by my office,” said Attorney General Jason Miyares in a release announcing the sentencing of Bhagavan “Doc” Antle. “In Virginia, we uphold the rule of law without exception, whether dealing with violent repeat offenders, big pharma, fraudsters and scammers, or wildlife traffickers.” 

Antle, the owner of 50-acre tropical preserve Myrtle Beach Safari, came under scrutiny by Virginia officials because of his relationship with Keith Wilson, the owner of Wilson’s Wild Animal Park in Winchester. 

After state agents raided the Winchester zoo and seized 119 wild animals, including lions and tigers, in 2019, Wilson was convicted of 27 counts of animal cruelty and forbidden to own, sell or work with any exotic species. (His nephew was also convicted on 19 counts of animal cruelty.) 

In a separate case, a Frederick grand jury in October 2020 indicted both Wilson and Antle for conspiring with each other to traffick lions in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act, as well as engaging in animal cruelty. 

This June, a Frederick jury convicted Antle of two felony counts of wildlife trafficking and two felony counts of conspiring to traffick wildlife. 

According to the Associated Press, the prosecution characterized Antle’s purchases of lion cubs from the Winchester zoo as a “cub pipeline” from Virginia to South Carolina that operated illegally after lions were designated endangered in 2015. Antle’s defense attorney, Erin Harrigan, argued the lion cubs Antle received were gifts from Wilson, and that Antle had separately donated thousands of dollars to Wilson’s zoo for an expanded tiger habitat. 

Under the terms of his sentence, Antle isn’t allowed to “work, own, possess, broker, buy, sell, trade, transfer, barter or donate any exotic animals for five years in the Commonwealth of Virginia.” 

If he violates the law or those terms during the next five years, he could be subject to two years of incarceration that are otherwise suspended.

Antle’s attorneys, Eric Breslin and Erin Harrigan, said they were “pleased and grateful that the judge rejected the government’s request for incarceration and saw Mr. Antle’s immense value in his work and family community.”

“Mr. Antle was convicted on four charges that amount to failing to obtain a permit for otherwise entirely lawful activity in the highly-regulated industry that is exhibiting endangered species,” they wrote. “These charges have never been brought in Virginia before, and the commonwealth’s case suffers from a variety of factual and legal defects. As we have maintained since his conviction at trial, we remain confident Mr. Antle will be fully vindicated by the courts in Virginia.”

This story has been updated with comments from Antle’s attorneys. 


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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.