By JEFFREY COLLINS, Associated Press
COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — “Tiger King” star Bhagavan “Doc” Antle has been charged with buying or selling endangered lemurs, cheetahs and an undocumented chimpanzee, federal prosecutors in South Carolina said Thursday.
The latest charges come on top of money laundering, with authorities saying Antle tried to hide more than half a million dollars earned in an operation to smuggle people across the Mexican border into the US.
Antle features prominently in “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” a 2020 Netflix documentary miniseries targeting tiger breeders and private zoo operators in the US. assault and was convicted in a plot to kill a rival, Carole Baskin.
The US Endangered Species Act requires permission to buy or move endangered species in captivity, and prosecutors said Antle, two of his associates and game owners in Texas and California have all broken the law.
Charles Sammut, the operator of Vision Quest Ranch in Salians, Calif., exchanged two red ruff lemurs with Antle in June 2018, federal prosecutors said.
The allegations in the charges are “strewn with misinformation,” Sammut told The Associated Press by phone on Thursday.
Sammut said he would not specify what was going on as he now had a criminal case pending, but added that he thought the issues would be “solved soon”.
Antle was also accused of exchanging a chimpanzee with Franklin Drive Through Safari in Franklin, Texas. Owner Jason Clay did not return a phone message and a lawyer was not in the court files.
Sammut, 61, and Clay, 42, are each charged with wildlife trafficking and violating the Endangered Species Act. If convicted, they face up to five years in prison.
Court documents said Antle, 62, and Myrtle Beach Safari employee Meredith Bybee also bought or sold two young cheetahs, although details about who else was involved in the alleged transaction were not in federal charges.
Antle’s lawyers did not respond to an email on Thursday and court records did not list a lawyer for Bybee, 51.
Antle and another employee, Andrew Jon Sawyer, 52, were charged with money laundering earlier in June.
Prosecutors said the men wrote $505,000 in checks intended for construction work at Myrtle Beach Safari, but were in fact payments to help smuggle people from Mexico into the United States.
Antle tried to hide the plan by increasing the number of tourists in its 20-acre (20 hectares) tropical nature reserve, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors also said he had previously used large cash register receipts to buy animals for which he could not use checks.
Animal rights advocates have long accused Antle of mistreating lions and other wildlife. He was charged in Virginia in 2020 with animal cruelty and wildlife trafficking.
In Virginia, Antle faces two wildlife trafficking and conspiracy charges for wildlife trafficking, as well as 13 charges for conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act and animal cruelty charges related to the trade in lion cubs. Those charges will go to trial next month.
Antle has a history of recorded violations dating back to 1989, when he was fined by the United States Department of Agriculture for abandoning deer and peacocks at his Virginia zoo. Over the years, he has over 35 USDA violations for animal cruelty.
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