‘Tiger King’ star trafficked endangered animals, prosecutors say
COLUMBIA, S.C. - "Tiger King" star Bhagavan "Doc" Antle has been charged with buying or selling endangered lemurs, cheetahs, and a chimpanzee without the proper paperwork, federal prosecutors in South Carolina said Thursday.
The latest charges are on top of money laundering counts, where authorities said Antle tried to hide more than half a million dollars made in an operation to smuggle people across the Mexican border into the U.S.
Antle is featured prominently in "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," a 2020 Netflix documentary miniseries that focused on tiger breeders and private zoo operators in the U.S. The series focused heavily on Oklahoma zoo operator Joe Exotic, who also was targeted for animal mistreatment and was convicted in a plot to kill a rival, Carole Baskin.
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The U.S. Endangered Species Act requires permission to buy or move any endangered species in captivity and prosecutors said Antle, two of his employees and owners of safari tours in Texas and California all broke the law.
Charles Sammut, the operator of Vision Quest Ranch in Salians, California, exchanged two red ruffed lemurs with Antle in June 2018, federal prosecutors said.
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The allegations in the indictments are "littered with misinformation," Sammut told The Associated Press by phone Thursday.
Sammut said he wouldn’t specify what was wrong because he had a criminal case now pending, but added he felt the problems "would be cleared up soon."
Antle was also charged with exchanging a chimpanzee with Franklin Drive Through Safari in Franklin, Texas. Owner Jason Clay didn’t return a phone message and a lawyer was not listed in court records.
Sammut, 61, and Clay, 42, are each charged with wildlife trafficking and violating the Endangered Species Act. If convicted, they face up to five years in prison.
Court documents said Antle, 62, and Myrtle Beach Safari employee Meredith Bybee also bought or sold two young cheetahs, although details about who else was involved in the alleged transaction were not in the federal indictments.
Antle’s lawyers did not respond to an email Thursday and court records didn’t list a lawyer for Bybee, 51.
Antle and another employee, Andrew Jon Sawyer, 52, were charged earlier in June with money laundering.
Prosecutors said the men wrote $505,000 worth of checks that were supposed to be for construction work at Myrtle Beach Safari but in reality were payments to help smuggle people from Mexico into the United States.
Antle tried to hide the scheme by inflating tourist numbers at his 50-acre (20-hectare) wildlife tropical preserve, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors also said he had previously used bulk cash receipts to purchase animals for which he could not use checks.
Animal rights advocates long have accused Antle of mistreating lions and other wildlife. He was indicted in Virginia in 2020 on animal cruelty and wildlife trafficking charges.
In Virginia, Antle is facing two felony counts of wildlife trafficking and conspiracy to wildlife trafficking charges, as well as 13 misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act and animal cruelty charges tied to trafficking lion cubs. Those charges are scheduled to go to trial next month.
Antle has a history of recorded violations, going as far back as 1989, when he was fined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for abandoning deer and peacocks at his zoo in Virginia. Over the years, he has more than 35 USDA violations for mistreating animals.