FLORENCE, South Carolina, November 8, 2023 (ENS) – Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, 63, of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, an American animal trainer, private zoo operator, and convicted felon, pleaded guilty Monday to a conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and a conspiracy to launder money. The Lacey Act prohibits trafficking of illegally taken wildlife, fish or plants, including animals protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Antle is the owner and operator of The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.), also known as the Myrtle Beach Safari, a 50-acre wildlife preserve that offers tours and private encounters with wildlife.
Antle is also the Director of the Rare Species Fund, a nonprofit organization registered in South Carolina.
“This plea is the product of exemplary collaboration between our law enforcement partners,” said U.S. Attorney Adair Boroughs for the District of South Carolina. “I commend our team for their work on this case who worked countless hours to unravel Antle’s sophisticated web of financial crimes and interstate wildlife trafficking. Our office remains committed to protecting endangered animals from those who would exploit them for profit.”
Antle is accused of participating in a conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act between September 2018 and May 2020 by directing the sale or purchase of two cheetah cubs, two lion cubs, two tigers and one juvenile chimpanzee – all protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Antle used bulk cash payments to hide the transactions and falsified paperwork to show non-commercial transfers entirely within one state. Antle also requested that payments for endangered species be made to his nonprofit so they could appear as “donations.”
The investigation uncovered evidence of money laundering between February and April 2022, when Antle and a co-conspirator conducted financial transactions with cash they believed was obtained from transporting and harboring illegal aliens.
To conceal and disguise the nature of the illegal cash, Antle and his coconspirator would take the cash they received and deposit it into bank accounts they controlled. They would then write a check to the individual who had provided the cash, after taking a 15 percent fee per transaction.
“The defendant held himself out as a conservationist, yet repeatedly violated laws protecting endangered animals and then tried to cover up those violations,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “This prosecution demonstrates our commitment to combating illegal trafficking, which threatens the survival of endangered animals.”
“The defendant’s guilty plea is a testament to the dedication and perseverance of the FBI and our law enforcement partners in combating illegal financial activities,” said Special Agent in Charge Steve Jensen of the FBI Columbia Field Office. “The FBI remains committed to upholding the integrity of our financial systems and ensuring justice is served.”
“Wildlife crime is often connected with other criminal activity, including money-laundering,” said Assistant Director Edward Grace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement. “This investigation revealed a pattern of illicit wildlife transactions orchestrated by the defendant under the guise of donations and false paperwork.”
“The Service and our partners will continue to hold accountable those involved in wildlife trafficking and other related crimes to ensure the future of all federally protected species. The Service will continue to bring to justice individuals who profit from the illegal trafficking of big cats and endangered species,” Grace said.
For each count, Antle faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and three years of supervised release.
U.S. District Judge Joseph Dawson III for the District of South Carolina accepted Antle’s guilty plea. He will sentence Antle after receiving and reviewing a sentencing report prepared by the U.S. Probation Office.
In total, Antle has more than 35 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture violations for mistreating animals.
Antle was indicted in October 2020 by a grand jury in Frederick County, Virginia, after a months-long investigation by the Animal Law Unit of the Virginia Attorney General. The charges included felony wildlife trafficking as well as misdemeanor animal cruelty and violations of the Endangered Species Act.
On October 3, just five days ago, Antle was fined $10,000 and banned for five years from “possessing, trading or interacting with wild animals” in Virginia. He also received a suspended two-year prison sentence in that case.
Featured image: Bhagavan “Doc” Antle with a jaguar and a black panther, undated. (Photo courtesy Doc Antle)