A ‘Tiger King’ is born: Netflix star Antle started at a rural Virginia yoga commune

A young Bhagavan Antle and Swami Satchidananda pose with one of Antle's lions. Photo: Living Yoga: The life and teachings of Swami Satchidananda A young Bhagavan Antle and Swami Satchidananda pose with one of Antle’s lions. Photo: Living Yoga: The life and teachings of Swami Satchidananda

Before he was a tiger king, Bhagavan Kevin “Doc” Antle lived in the rolling green hills of central Virginia, at the Satchidananda Ashram, in Buckingham County’s Yogaville. Antle has become an international sensation thanks to his starring role in the Netflix documentary miniseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness.” The show portrays Antle as both a talented animal handler and a sinister cult leader, who mistreats and abuses his young and vulnerable employees.

In the 1980s, when he lived in Virginia, Antle was a magician with a yard full of wild animals. 

“It was very exciting,” says Martha Louis, who lived next to Antle’s Buckingham operation. “Night noises. Lions roaring. Tigers purring. The elephant, Bubbles, doing his thing. They would sometimes come into our yard because we were right next door.”

“[Antle] could be seen on Howardsville Road, walking—like you’d walk a dog—he’d walk the tiger,” says Louis.

Antle came to Yogaville in the earliest days of the ashram, around 1982—which is also when he bought his first tiger, according to a 2015 Rolling Stone profile. At the time, he was also working in marketing for Exxon. 

Antle evidently felt at home at Yogaville, a meditation complex founded in the early ’80s by Swami Satchidananda, the celebrity yogi who delivered the opening blessing at Woodstock in 1969. The spot draws people from around the world to practice in the placid Appalachian wilderness—residents eat vegetarian, meditate multiple times per day, and pay cheap rent. Many adopt Sanskrit first names. (Antle’s name, Bhagavan, was given to him by his mother, according to Rolling Stone.)

Shortly after arriving, Antle had a robust private zoo up and running, not far from the ashram. Louis estimates the 14-acre property held 100 animals—lions, tigers, bears, monkeys, birds, an elephant, and more.

Martha Louis’ family with one of Antle’s lions. Photo: Martha Louis

“He lived at the zoo,” Louis says. “He was there most of the time because those animals all needed to be fed. He had a freezer full of meat, like a full big freezer full of steaks.”

Antle’s animals regularly appear in photos with Satchidananda, who died in 2002, but whose image is still ubiquitous in Yogaville’s advertising materials. A 1986 Washington Post article describing the dedication of Yogaville’s central Lotus building mentions Antle, and Bubbles the elephant, leading a celebratory parade.  

The big cats helped Satchidananda cultivate an image of holiness. “This so perfectly captures the utter fearlessness and also love of animals and nature that #SwamiSatchidananda embodied,” reads a 2017 post from the swami’s Facebook page, above a photo of a windswept Satchidananda posing contemplatively in a field with two of Antle’s tigers.

Satchidananda with two of Antle’s tigers. Photo: Sri Swami Satchidananda on Facebook

Despite this peaceful talk, it wasn’t all smooth sailing at Antle’s Buckingham zoo. Once, says Louis, “The buffalo got out. Buffaloes are not a good pet, they’re kind of crazy. I think it went right through the fence and brought a few animals with it.”

“He’s not really a nice guy,” says Louis of Antle. “You probably picked that up from the publicity. He was nice to us.”

The circumstances of Antle’s departure from Buckingham remain somewhat mysterious. 911 Animal Abuse suggests Antle fled the property in December 1989, leaving behind peacocks and deer. A 1990 article in The Tennessean recounts an earlier incident in which a visitor named Clint Baron had his hand mauled by a tiger—Baron filed and then withdrew a lawsuit. Louis remembers that at one point an employee was “clawed by a bear.”

Antle didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story, and Yogaville didn’t return multiple calls. (Give them a ring, and you’ll have the option of pressing 1 to make a reservation, or pressing 2 if you’re “in need of spiritual guidance.” Neither line is interested in talking to the press, apparently.)

The Netflix documentary makes serious allegations about Antle’s treatment of the employees at the sprawling Myrtle Beach Safari that he now calls home. According to Barbara Fisher, a former employee interviewed on the show, Antle pays his employees $100 a week to work 12-hour days, seven days a week. Many of his employees are young women who arrive as teenagers and never leave. The documentarians ask various people in the show how many wives Antle has, and guesses range from two to nine. 

In a 2007 film about the value of Satchidandanda’s teachings, Antle gives the swami’s lessons credit for his zoo operation. “Integral yoga is what has given us the tools to transform people into tiger caretakers,” Antle says.

According to Fisher, “There’s this concept where a guru will touch you and you’ll become enlightened.” And Antle, she says, invoked this concept, “shakti-pa,” to get his young employees to sleep with him—“Essentially, it’s shakti-pa with penis.”

Many of yoga’s most prominent gurus have faced sexual assault allegations over the decades—including Satchidananda, who in 1991 was accused by students of sexual abuse, and was met with protesters holding signs reading “End the abuse” when speaking at a conference. 

In the weeks since its debut, “Tiger King” has been criticized for reveling in the wild lives of its subjects and ignoring more serious abuses hiding in plain sight—abuse of both animals and people. Antle—“He’s a performer,” Louis says—knows better than anyone that tigers can be distracting.

 

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