Stay-at-home America has been captivated by the bizarre Netflix true-crime show "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," in which Myrtle Beach Safari plays a large supporting role.
At the end of March, "Tiger King" was the most popular show in the U.S. and the most-watched title on Netflix, Variety reported. Netflix describes the show by saying that in the "stranger-than-fiction world of big cat owners, few stand out more than Joe Exotic, a mulleted, gun-toting polygamist and country western singer who presides over an Oklahoma roadside zoo."
Myrtle Beach Safari owner Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who knows Joe Exotic through the industry, describes it as sensationalism. He said film crews had access to his property for more than two years, and he believed they were making a film about animal conservation and his work overseas.
"That's not a documentary," he said, describing the series as "quasi-fictional drama, more focused on shock value and titillation than fact."
"It certainly is entertaining," said Antle, who rejects any suggestion that his business mistreats animals, or that he created a personal harem for himself from the young women who joined the operation as interns.
In the show, Joe Exotic describes Antle as his mentor. Both play a large role in the second episode of the seven-part series, titled "Cult of Personality." The episode focused on the staff at big cat businesses who worked long hours for low pay and, in some cases, became intimately involved with the owners.
"When I met (Antle) I had two husbands, and he had three — girlfriends or wives," said Joe Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage.
“I certainly don’t have three wives," Antle said. “They (Netflix) just wanted that cult vibe."
Becca Thompson, of Charlotte, said she worked as a publicist for Antle in 2010. She recalls Antle telling her that three of the women there who had started as interns — Moksha, China and Rajnee — were his partners.
“He said we should be like in nature, where a male lion has a pride of females," she said. “I can’t believe Doc denied the thing about his wives. He was very proud of that at the time."
Thompson said she lived at T.I.G.E.R.S in the same house as Moksha, "his favorite wife."
Antle, 60, who has adult children from a prior marriage, said he objects to the idea that people are judging his private life. He said Thompson was not his publicist but “someone who came by and hung out for a while, and rolled down the road and went her own way.”
“I am a single guy," he said. "I do have girlfriends, and I do have more than one girlfriend at a time."
Antle would rather talk about wildlife conservation efforts, the law he helped pass in South Carolina to prohibit people from keeping tigers as pets, and his insistence that allegations in the series about euthanizing tigers are baseless.
Myrtle Beach Safari has been in business for nearly 30 years, and charges visitors $339 for three-hour tours of the extensive collection of big cats and other animals, with hand-on experiences that feature petting tiger cubs for another $100. Tours are held at The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species, (T.I.G.E.R.S.), Antle's 50-acre property.
Antle said COVID-19 has had a big impact on operations, which is difficult when the business overhead includes 1,000 pounds of meat daily for the animals. The Netflix show, he thinks, will just bring more visitors.
“I guess it will drive even more people to our preserve, which regularly sells out, even at the premium prices we charge," Antle said.
A key narrative in "Tiger King" is the friction between businesses that profit from charging people to pet tiger cubs and Carole Baskin, who runs Big Cat Rescue in Florida and has advocated federal legislation that would prohibit cub-petting.
"I had to hear about Carole Baskin all the time," Thompson said. "The only person I’ve heard that hated Carole more than Doc was this Joe person."
Animal rights advocates argue that charging people to pet cubs is a business model that depends on breeding tigers for profit, but to Antle and Joe Exotic, Baskin was a competitor who also runs a big cat park with paying visitors.
“For Carole, I think the show was very difficult," Antle said. "Even without the murder allegations, she came across as kind of spooky and bizarre."
Joe Exotic (Maldonado-Passage) was sent to prison last year for a 22-year term, having been convicted in a murder-for-hire plot to kill Baskin, as well as animal abuse charges.
In "Tiger King," Joe Exotic and others imply or directly allege Baskin played a role in the 1990s disappearance of her previous husband, Don Lewis. Joe Exotic even made a music video called "Here Kitty Kitty" — still available on YouTube — where a lookalike of Baskin appears to feed human body parts to tigers.
“I had people down yesterday, swimming with my elephant, and people were going by in their boats yelling ‘Carole killed her husband,' " Antle said.
Yes, Antle regularly swims with an elephant, named Bubbles, in the Intracoastal Waterway.
Baskin, like Antle, has taken exception to the way she was portrayed in "Tiger King."
"There is no short, simple way to refute so many lies," she said, in an extensive rebuttal posted on Big Cat Rescue's website Tuesday.
Lawson Roberts, a high-end event planner with a Charleston office, said he's worked with Antle and found him to be a man of his word who treats his animals well. Antle's animals have been featured in hundreds of motion pictures, and in the past he would hire them out for events.
"The only thing I do know is that, when we need camels or something, he's been our go-to guy," Roberts said. "He runs a professional operation, and it's nice to have a resource here in South Carolina."
Thompson said she parted ways with Antle because she was left out of the loop when one of his tigers escaped its enclosure in the Miami Zoo where it was spending the winter. It was a stunning incident in which, NBC Miami reported, a 2-year-old girl ended up face-to-face with the 500-pound tiger and was unharmed.
Antle said the tiger didn't harm anyone, and didn't end up getting shot to protect the public, because it had been "hand-raised by professionals."
“Virtually every other tiger escape in a zoo has ended in tragedy, either for the tiger or the guests," he said.
Myrtle Beach Safari, like other attractions in South Carolina, is not accepting visitors now due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Hundreds of millions of people are stuck at home and watching the murder, madness and mayhem of 'Tiger King,'" Antle said.