My Time with the Tiger King: Doc Antle.
I had not wanted to watch the original Tiger King when I first heard of it. I had been an animal handler in my late teens and early 20s. I had had enough of manipulative, egotistical train wrecks and their abused animals to last me a lifetime.
I spent time at a couple of different facilities, both in the US and in Canada. Over time, I started to recognize a theme. The handlers were often good people. Animal lovers, hard workers, willing to sacrifice their own comfort, safety, financial stability, and social lives for the good of the animals they worked with. The people that ran the facilities, though, were a different matter entirely.
There was something problematic with the people in charge — particularly the ones who gravitated towards predators — big cats, in specific. I think that the drive that makes one want to own dangerous animals often comes from a desire to prove one’s own superiority. By dominating an animal that could rip their heads off, they proved their own strength and power. The social cache of owning a big cat is extreme, too. Even as a handler I saw it: my proximity to the cats warranted me adoration and admiration from many of the people I interacted with. The cats respected me, therefore I deserved and got the respect of others. Big cats confer a sense of celebrity and awe. It was disturbing and complicated, and although I did miss the animals, I was glad to be away from that world.
Still, somebody told me that my old boss, Doc Antle, made appearances in the show, and I caved. Mostly, I wanted to see my elephant.
Instead I was captured by the stories from another person who had known Doc. Barbara had arrived at the facility not long after I left, and her experiences were so familiar to me. Listening to her speak about her experiences left me both nauseous and grateful. A cascade of memory and emotion washed over me, resurrecting all the shame, anger, and sorrow of that time in my life.
I had known Doc from the perspective of a vulnerable 18 year old, 3000 miles from home. Even then, I saw his ego, his manipulative tactics, and his cruelty, but he still had sway over me. Watching Barbara speak was like fresh air blowing away all the cobwebs and dust. It wasn’t just me, misremembering things. The place had been just as exploitative, abusive, and dangerous as I had thought it was. I hadn’t been being paranoid in thinking that Doc was grooming me. It was scary while I was there, and it turned into a full-blown cult after I left. It wasn’t all in my mind. Neither was I alone in my experience. There were others who had gone through the same experiences, and saw it the way I did. Best of all, finally, someone was doing what I had been powerless to do — they were shedding light on him, so that maybe he would be less able to continue his abuse.
Watching that show was harder than I had expected. It was also incredibly cathartic. I know that, for a lot of people, this show is sensationalist reality TV. And it is. It is a carnival of the worst of our species. It is also a damning and real expose on people that willingly and intentionally abuse the vulnerable for their own self-aggrandizement. The Tiger King producers did not invent this train-wreck. They just put a spotlight on it.
It was immensely clarifying. Emotionally abusive, cultish situations leave marks. They keep you trapped by making you doubt your own perceptions, They vilify and deride those who criticize them or leave, and create a sense of exceptionalism for those who remain. Starvation, overwork, and lack of sleep serve to dysregulate the body and muddy the ability to think critically. Social isolation and the intentional alienation of friends, family, and outside support networks creates a dynamic of vulnerability and dependence.
Walking away from that is hard, and it tends to leave strings attached, even years after escaping.
When I finally left, part of me knew how ugly and wrong that place was. I had seen too many things. I was also unable to fully cut ties. I never spoke up against Doc. I even went back there a decade or so ago. I smiled and was friendly, and swallowed bile, because I wanted so badly to see the animals, and his children. I had run away, saved myself, and left them all to fend for themselves. I knew it was a horrible, damaging, dangerous place, but I also missed it terribly. My memories of that time are full of intense cognitive dissonance.
At 19, leaving the facility with a small suitcase and the hundred dollars I had squirreled away (we only earned $100 per week. Saving money was almost impossible), I felt like I was escaping and failing all at the same time. I had made that place my home. In retrospect, Doc had become a little bit of a father figure, as twisted as that feels to me now.
For years after I left, I would dream of that place. I’d be back — older, wiser, stronger. Doc would be there, wryly charming and welcoming. I would be welcomed back to the fold. The place was everything it was supposed to be. I had just been too young, too suspicious, too weak to manage. The kids were fine. The animals were healthy. It was safe to go home. I would wake up, shaken, homesick, full of self-doubt and confusion.
I left home when I was 18, when I ran away from my family to join the Renaissance Faire circuit. I was young, tall, approachable, and fearless. Charming, aging misogynists were nothing new to me. I knew how to be friends with complicated people. Doc was a mess, but he was also interesting, and I enjoyed our conversations.
I wasn’t stupid. I could see that the system was exploitive, and I knew that I was going to have to be on my guard if I was going to make it through in one piece. A the time, I placed much of my personal value on how tough I was — on my ability to withstand abuse, pain, and isolation. I could see through Doc’s games. I thought I could jump through whatever hoops he put in front of me, so that I could eventually become a “licensed animal trainer”. Beyond that (I was a musician and performer) he promised me that I would be able to refine and use those skills in the stage shows they did. Stardom, a place to perform, time with animals, the accreditation necessary to strike out on my own.
He promised us that, if we put in two years at his facility, we would graduate with a license permitting us to be animal keepers in our own rights. Of course, it was all a lie. These “licenses” didn’t exist, and he didn’t train us in anything but the skills he needed us to have to be useful. I didn’t know that at the beginning, though. I thought that, if I worked hard, I would eventually be able to have my own rescue facility. The sacrifices seemed worth it.
I didn’t want the boob jobs, or a place in the comically large, leopard print bed he liked to show off to me. I felt above all that. Like I said, old men and their inappropriate flirting was something I had been managing and laughing off for years. I wanted to be respected and valued as a capable trainer and performer. I wanted to survive the crucible and be found worthy.
We worked so hard. During the summer, we worked 20 hour days. We got to take a half-hour lunch, but the rest of our time was spent endlessly fixing, cleaning, organizing, checking and double checking our work, and everybody else’s. We were taught to doubt and second-guess one another. He installed cameras and listening devices that he monitored from his apartment upstairs.
Doc had power, status, and the incomparable, beautiful allure of these magnificent animals. He had an unending supply of eager, hard working, young people, just dying to sign away their lives to the facility. He played people off of each other, creating an environment of distrust and suspicion. As soon as a new person would arrive, he would begin a campaign of lies and manipulation, designed to make each of us feel alone, betrayed, and afraid. He did his best to make each of us suspect the others of sabotage and hidden agendas. He wanted us to all think that he was the only person there that we could count on, that we could trust.
When someone left, he turned them into the object of vicious ridicule. They were jokes. Embarrassments. Useless. Stupid. Destined to failure. They were a cautionary tale of weakness and rejection.
Over time the long hours of hard labor, the lack of sleep, and the social isolation began to break me down. I existed in a brain fog. I lost my joy, my passion for the animals, for performance, for people in general. My judgement became spottier. Doc’s constant barrage of mockery, shame, and pressure overwhelmed what self-esteem I had arrived with. My priorities got twisted up in themselves. I witnessed animals being abused, children being neglected, and people being lied to and manipulated. I felt helpless. I had no proof. He was beloved in the community. I was an 18 year old kid, with no money, and no power. He had us all under threat of litigation, too, threatening to sue if any of us dared to talk about what we saw and learned there.
I started out there, muscular, capable, strong, joyful. I was ready to do whatever I needed to do to succeed in this environment with a smile on my face. I thought I could stand up to the nonsense, but it was constant, and insidious, and I was more easily manipulated than I realized. I knew he was problematic in some ways, but I still thought he was a friend. He seemed so successful and knowledgeable — I trusted him.
The first time he told me that I was “too unfuckably fat to be onstage” I thought he was an asshole. Eventually, though, the constant criticism wore me down. I had always been a little insecure about my body, and I desperately wanted to be on stage with the animals. I became bulimic. Eventually, while working those 18 and 20 hour days, doing hard, often dangerous work, I committed myself to Doc’s recommended 600–800 calorie per day rice-and-lentil diet. I began to value my concave belly over the considerable muscle tone I had lost.
Once I was skinny enough to be deemed stage-worthy, Doc first complimented my weight and then told me that my chest was now too flat to be attractive. I was starving, and trapped his echo chamber. I was so isolated, and I had already put so much time and energy into gaining his approval. And my body did look strange. Bony and flat-chested now, with my body fat so low. My blood pressure, always low, had gotten so bad that I couldn’t stand up without going tunnel visioned. I almost passed out while trying to hold a tiger back from attacking a group of dancers. Still, I had fully bought into Doc’s priorities. Being thin was necessary.
Bit by bit, cosmetic surgery seemed like a reasonable solution. I laughed along when Doc and his friends mocked my body. I thumbed through the playboy magazines he gave me, and discussed whether my frame needed c-cups or d with his go-to plastic surgeon.
Worse than all of that — the part that still makes my stomach churn — when he neglected his children, and abused the animals, I did nothing.
I raised a baby bear, Damascus, for Doc. When he was an adorable, fluffy teddy bear, he lived in Doc’s apartment, surrounded with love and attention. When he got a little bigger, he was consigned to a 10x10 concrete horse stall. The door was solid wood, and tall enough that Damascus had to stand on tip-toe to see into the hallway. The one little window to the outside was set impossibly high in the wall. For a short while, I was allowed to go in to snuggle him for a bit, when I gave him his bottles. He would leap on me like a puppy when I came in, and he would scream and scream when I left. I can still hear him in my mind. It was an awful, desperate, lonely sound, and it hurts to think about.
Once he was old enough to do without his bottles, I was forbidden from going into the enclosure anymore. Doc wanted to be the only source of connection or warmth. I watched Damascus mentally deteriorate. At first, when he’d see me in the hall, he’d shake the gate and scream, to get my attention. I wasn’t allowed to touch him anymore, so all I could do was talk to him from a distance, while he reached his arms out for me like a desperately lonely child. Remember, we were being videotaped constantly. I started avoiding the hallway, because it felt like I was just torturing him by being there.
Eventually, he turned his attention to the wall, and the unreachable window. He spent hours, shrieking, frothing at the mouth, leaping over and over, paws stretched up towards the window. He had no break from the concrete. Eventually, his round little foot pads split, and the bloody trails he left under the window became yet another thing I was told to ignore.
When I tried to talk to Doc about what I was seeing, he tore me apart. “Stop anthropomorphizing the animals. They don’t have feelings. They aren’t human. They don’t get bored, they don’t need love, they aren’t sad. They are animals. Don’t be so stupid.”
Eventually, Doc was ready to start training. Damascus was so excited to be taken out of his prison. I was excited to see him out and about. Doc started with “table training”. For hours, that sweet, gentle little bear was forced to lie, clipped to a heavy iron table, with a heavy chain wrapped around his little neck, unable to move his head more than a few inches. Eventually, Doc came back, and began harassing him. He poked and prodded and harassed Damascus until the poor thing finally growled back. Not much, mind you — his head was still locked to the table. As soon as he got the very slightly aggressive response he was looking for, Doc jumped up on the table with his steel-toed boots, and spent the next five minutes kicking the hell out of this terrified, trapped baby bear. Damascus screamed and tried to get his body out of the way, but his head was still attached to the table. There was nowhere to go. “If they aren’t scared of you when they’re young, they’ll eat you when they get older”.
I just stood there and watched and finally went back to my room to cry. I don’t think I will ever stop aching over what those animals, and Doc’s children, and all the other people that got sucked in and trapped. Even in retrospect, I am not sure what I should have done. I wish I had tried, though. I ran, and saved myself, and did nothing. I will carry that with me always.
I don’t dream about TIGERS anymore, though. Not since I saw Tiger King, and heard Barbara. We’re friends now, and I’ve reconnected with one of my old coworkers. I don’t feel alone in my memories of Doc and the compound anymore. I spent years gaslighting myself. Thinking I was reading too much into my memories -that it couldn’t have been that bad. So many people seem to love him, I questioned my own perceptions. Listening to Barbara, and seeing the shitshow that Tigers has grown into since I left was incredibly cathartic. It was everything I had thought, and more.
When I got the opportunity to do the interview for Tiger King: The Doc Antle Story, I jumped at it. I wanted to add my voice and support to Barbara’s, and all the other people that struggled and suffered there. I have some hope that our words may prevent other young women from being pulled into his orbit. Maybe it will even help some of the people who are currently there to walk away.
I hope his kids — if they remember me at all — understand that I did not do this to hurt them. I hope they can get away from Doc and his influence. Growing up with a father like Doc is going to have been a deeply traumatic and damaging thing. The problem with abuse like that is that it is so constant, pervasive, and inescapable, it becomes the air you breathe. You can’t see what it is doing to you from inside.
I was with them when they were young. For them, I was a flash. I don’t know how much they remember me, if at all. For me, they were the first children I ever loved. I think of them when I look at my own kids. They were wonderful, and perfect, and human, and I am so glad I had them in my life. I am also so sorry that I left them. I am sorry that I added, in any way, to the weight of abandonment and loss that they suffered. I don’t think they will appreciate this — I don’t blame them if they don’t — but I am speaking out for them here, as well. They are fully grown adults now, and responsible for their own actions, but they are also Doc’s victims.
Watching the new Tiger King series about Doc Antle was an intense experience for me — I never thought I would get to tell so much of my story. I am so grateful to the producers of Tiger King for all the work they did to make this happen. I knew I was not alone in my experiences, and I also now see that I got off easy. My heart feels more at peace — that whole situation was so much bigger than I was. I don’t think there was anything I could have done at the time. I am so grateful that I’ve gotten the chance to do something now.
My one complaint is that I think the show glosses over the animal abuse and neglect at his facility. Doc Antle is no animal lover. He uses both animals and people for his own benefit, and has wounded so many. I do hope that he faces justice for the animal abuse and neglect. The way he treats people is bad enough. He is so much worse to those who cannot speak for themselves.
Early in this process, I was afraid of Doc’s response. I am pretty certain that he will malign and mock me, as he did Barbara. I realized recently, though, that I don’t really care. He is neither ethical nor wise, so his opinions are irrelevant.
I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t taken the opportunity to speak up, and I know that my motivations are good, and that I spoke with honesty and integrity.
That is the best I can do. I hope it makes a difference.