An addictive mix of mind-blowing, true-crime drama featuring gay and straight polygamists, self-identifying rednecks, a cult leader, and a rotating cast of felons and hitmen, Tiger King’s cast of unstable characters makes for tragically entertaining viewing.
What’s the glue that bonds them together?
The taming and keeping of some of the deadliest big cats on the planet, which, turns out, isn’t such an unusual subculture after all.
In the second episode of Tiger King, we learn more about Bhagavan Kevin Antle, aka Doc Antle, the founder of The Institute for Greatly Endangered or Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) based in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. A devotee of the popular guru Swami Satchidananda (1914–2002), Antle even resided in Satchidananda’s Integral Yoga ashram in central Virginia in the 80s. The ashram, called Yogaville, is where he kept some of his first tigers and an African elephant named Bubbles who he rescued as a calf. The Swami, the founder of Integral Yoga, was frequently photographed with Antle’s tigers, and they often appeared in parades and public celebrations at Yogaville.
Antle’s roots in Eastern philosophy run deep. His great grandmother was a devotee of Paramahansa Yogananda, the world-famous author of Autobiography of a Yogi and one of the first Indian gurus to travel to the U.S. in the twentieth century. His grandmother dabbled in occult mysticism like tarot and séances, and his mother was a California hippie who embraced, in Antle’s words, the “Woodstock lifestyle.” Antle’s mother named him Bhagavan—loosely translated as “one who is blessed” or “enlightened one.” “We weren’t doing kirtan in the living room or anything,” said Antle in a phone call from his home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “But, I found it all very fascinating.”
By the time he was 18 (circa 1978), Antle had completed yoga teacher training with Swami Satchidananda at an Ashram in Connecticut. A year later, he moved to Yogaville. Antle describes Satchidananda as very “hands-on” and “involved” teacher at that time. There was a constant influx of other spiritual leaders and teachers who visited the ashram, including Yogi Bhajan and Thich Nhat Hahn.
According to Antle, whose timeline is a bit hazy, he relocated his animals to Myrtle Beach in 1989, and officially opened up Doc Antle’s Myrtle Beach Safari to paying visitors sometime around 1992. He actively recruited “apprentices” to help him run his operation. One of those apprentices was Barbara Fisher, who was featured in the Tiger King series.
From Midwestern Teenager to Tiger Trainer
Born and raised in Ames, Iowa, Fisher started practicing Transcendental Meditation at 16, as a way to cope with her chronic OCD. “I looked up [T.I.G.E.R.S.] on the Internet,” said Fisher. “I was attracted to the fact that [Antle] was a yogi and a vegetarian, and I thought, ‘Well, this must be the place for me.’” She arrived at the compound in 1999, when she was just 19 years old.
Life at Doc Antle’s Myrtle Beach Safari, home to 200 wild animals, was demanding—thanks to 16-hour workdays and no weekends off, according to the documentary. But Bhagavan still found time to lecture his apprentices and employees on the teachings of Satchidananda and take them to private Hatha Yoga classes off-site.
Fisher’s two main responsibilities at the compound were caring for Antle’s small children from a previous marriage and helping to bottle feed newborn tigers, who needed to be fed every three hours.
Inside the Big Cat “Lifestyle”
Antle had about 12 employees while Fisher worked there, more than half were female, and, according to the documentary, many them had sexual relationships with Antle and were considered “his wives.” Antle contested this in our conversation, saying that he identifies as “single” with a few “girlfriends.”
“We treated him like a guru,” Fisher said. “He expected wholehearted loyalty from his employees at all times.”
One by one, the female apprentices took on spiritual names given to them by Antle. Fisher was renamed “Bala,” which can be translated in Hindi as “female child.” “According to Antle, “Bala” was the name of a nine-year-old goddess. “He did kinda treat me like a child,” she said. “But, I liked it. I love children and I loved childhood.” Shortly thereafter, Fisher had her name legally changed.
Despite feeling coerced to get breast implants and eventually moving into Antle’s house, Fisher asserts that she never had a sexual relationship with him. However, she admits that he made her deeply uncomfortable on several occasions.
Antle denies any impropriety, and has spoken out publicly about his negative portrayal in the series. He believes that Fisher is living in a “fantasy world.”
“I feel like [Antle’s] connection to either humans or animals are all about what they can do for him. They are all contextual to him,” said Fisher. “When you listen to him talk about people, he talks about their physical attributes, just like the tigers…I don’t think he thinks about their best interest. He only thinks about his agenda.”
See also Learn About Trauma-informed Yoga
Fisher doesn’t mince words. During our 45-minute phone conversation, she called Antle a “psychopath” more than once and compared her experience at T.I.G.E.R.S. to being “in a cult.” She discussed how she needed therapy for PTSD after leaving the compound in 2007. “When you’re in a cult, you can’t use your whole brain. You have to shut down parts of your brain to survive,” she said. “It feels like he was in my head, like he could see my thoughts.”
Fisher credits staying in touch with family and friends for helping her escape the confines of her former life. “They were always there to talk to me. I never felt judged,” she said. “They would tell me the truth, asking why I changed my name or got breast implants, saying ‘this is not you.’ But, I always felt welcome. When I left, they were thrilled.” She believes that several of Doc Antle’s employees who have been there for decades will never leave, because they have no one left or any way to live in the outside world.
A New Reality
Today, Fisher is a preschool teacher in Iowa, married to her high school crush, Asa Fisher. They have three children. “I took me years to learn how to speak to and interact with people again,” she said. “It still feels weird, because most of my day was spent with animals or the same people.”
She’s working on her Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and wants to work with children. “One day, I hope to meet a child that might be like Bhagavan and help them try to feel feelings for people, because I don’t think you can do much when they are an adult,” she said. “But, maybe, when somebody is a little child, they could learn to love in the same capacity normal people do.”
Fisher doesn’t practice yoga anymore, because it causes her anxiety. But, she still loves animals and remains a vegetarian.
Antle, who just turned 60 in March, is still dedicated to his daily practice. “I practice yoga all the time. I meditate all the time,” said Antle. “I have a simple altar set up where I have a yantra. I burn a candle, and I meditate every morning and every night… it can make you feel peaceful, easeful, and useful. That’s all you got to be in life.”