In August 2015 I embarked on a trip to visit Big Cat Rescue and four other animal facilities, most of which are constantly being trashed online by Big Cat Rescue. The other facilities I visited were Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary, Dade City’s Wild Things, Forced Exotic Animal Relocation (FEAR), and The Institute of Greatly Endangered & Rare Species (TIGERS.). I’ve already reviewed the first four of the facilities I visited which you can read about in the previous blog posts. Now comes the last facility I visited on my exotic animal adventure that has also gotten a bad rap from Big Cat Rescue.
The Myrtle Beach Safari is found at the T.I.G.E.R.S Preserve which is located in the popular tourist destination, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The Wild Encounters Tour costs a whopping $300 per person and was only available for a limited time of the year; March 14, 2015 to October 10, 2015. The tour lasts about 3 hours and is offered a three days out of the week.
The cost of admission for the tour certainly eliminates a large demographic of people, however, I assume the steep price covers the cost to keep the facility running since they only let people tour a few months out of the year. Fewer tours for more money also means the animals are on exhibit less so there is less disruption in their daily lives and routines.
Although I traveled to the T.I.G.E.R.S Preserve a few months ago, it was an unforgettable experience that I still remember vividly. The many pictures on a CD and a DVD video I was given at the end of my tour served to keep the memory alive as well.
Before I begin, I should mentioned that I was not allowed to take my own photos as that is prohibited at T.I.G.E.R.S. Not being able to take my own photos wasn’t much of a problem since the tour group is followed by multiple photographers who take pictures of everyone throughout the tour. There was also a videographer who filmed the majority of the tour.
Heading down a long narrow road surrounded by trees and numerous parked cars on both sides, I came upon a tall automated wooden gate. Looking at the gate gave me the feeling that I was about to experience something entirely different than the norm. I walked through the opened gate and waited with a small group of people until the rest of the scheduled visitors showed up for the tour.
I was feeling a little anxious waiting since I didn't know what to expect. Other than the training demonstrations at Big Cat Habitat, the facilities I had visited thus far were pretty much the same since you’re basically just looking at animals in their enclosures. From what I had heard, this was going to be an entirely different experience.
Once everyone showed up and signed in, Robert "Rob" Johnson, a man dressed as if he was about to go on a safari, began giving us the rundown of what to expect and what we could and could not do. For example, we could not use our phones or cameras to take pictures or videos. Someone using their phone would likely be very distracted which could prove disastrous since we would be seeing and interacting with live animals up close and personal. Also a phone going off could possibly spook an animal which could also present a problem.
Not being able to use a camera wasn't a problem because there would be professional photographers following us around taking pictures for us while we just enjoyed the experience. Breaking the rules called for being launched out of the facility by way of catapult, or so we were told.
We followed Rob until we arrived at a lovely looking rustic lodge. I couldn't help but quietly laugh as I thought about how jealous Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue, would be since she has been wanting to build a lodge for a very long time.
The interior of the lodge was cozy, spacious, and nicely set up. Since it was a lodge everything was mostly made from wood but the thing that stood out the most was the large windowed wall. On the other side of the window was a tall hunting stand that I already knew the purpose for. Adorning the walls of the lodge were numerous flat screen TVs playing a variety of videos featuring the facility and its founder, Bhagavan "Doc" Antle. Ornate studio-quality portraits of animals were also decorating the walls making the interior even more visually appealing. Hanging above the doorways were wooden signs that said something along the lines of “this facility is accredited by the ZAA”.
Everyone was assigned a photo group and I got in line to sign-in and have my identifying photo taken. While the tour guests were conversing with each other, Rob was offering absolutely delicious Cuban coffee in small colorful ceramic cups. The coffee tasted really great and if I heard correctly, Rob said he made it himself. I really love coffee and would have gotten multiple refills but I didn’t want to take the chance of needing to go to the bathroom during the tour.
I couldn't help but notice a large world map hanging on a wall that pinpointed the conservation efforts this facility participates in through the Rare Species Fund. The many projects they help contribute to and finance take place in many different countries. For example, they participate in cheetah conservation in Namibia by helping out the Cheetah Conservation Fund. I already knew a little bit about the Cheetah Conservation Fund through what I’d seen on their Youtube channel.
Once our paperwork was in order, two young ladies, Moksha and I forgot the other’s name, presented us with information about the facility and it's founder, Doc Antle. That's where the TVs on the wall came into play. We learned what types of films some of the animal actors have acted in which included music videos, movies, commercials, and documentaries. I thought it was pretty cool how they provided some of the animals for Doctor Dolittle, one of the movies I used to watch as a kid. Below is one of the commercials we were shown that starred some of their animals. I thought it was funny that they used an australian voice actor for the american alligator.
We were told how Doc Antle utilizes all of the best techniques he picked up from his many years of work on films and commercials to make the tour safer and more memorable. We were also provided information about the many conservation projects the facility is taking part in like the map I previously mentioned pointed out. We learned that people can actually sign up to take a trip with T.I.G.E.R.S to go on an African Safari which sounds great. That reminded me of a similar thing the Houston Zoo (my nearby zoo) does.
All of the interesting and educational information about the facility and it's animals helped to serve as an elaborate distraction. By that I mean, after the educators finished their presentation, they told their captivated audience to turn around. Behind us, standing just on the opposite side of the long windowed wall, was a huge liger. The crowd was in awe of this unexpected surprise. It's not everyday you see a ginormous liger up-close and being led around by a simple baby bottle full of formula. Kody Antle, Doc Antle’s son, was holding the liger's chain leash while Rajani, a small but apparently very brave lady, was positioning the liger against the window with the bottle.
The liger was then led to the tall stand I mentioned earlier. The trainer that had the bottle climbed up and took out a piece of meat that was placed on the end of a stick. Everyone watched as the liger rose up on its hind legs and effortlessly reached to the top of the stand, taking the piece of meat. I was amazed by how large the liger truly was because it towered over everybody. It was way bigger than the liger that was playing with Clayton Rosaire back at Big Cat Habitat. We were told the liger stood a little over 9ft tall and weighed close to 1000 pounds.
After situating the liger on a wooden platform on the deck of the lodge, we were asked to go outside. I honestly couldn’t believe we were being asked to go outside with the ginormous beast with nothing in between us except for the handlers and a chain that I assumed was attached to the porch in case the liger took an interest in us.
Luckily for us, the liger was too busy sucking on the bottle like a kitten to pay us any attention. We were instructed to gather around the liger as we were told more about him but this time, Doc Antle was there too. I couldn’t help but admire the dedication and training that must have occurred in order for the liger to be so nonchalant around people.
Next we were instructed to form a line so everyone could have their picture taken with the liger. Photo group by photo group, everyone sat on a bench connected to the porch in front of the liger which was a couple feet back. Since my photo "group" consisted of me, myself, and I, I was a little worried about turning my back to this huge beast but I guessed that’s where all the training, the trust, and the bond the animal has with its handlers comes into play.
Before I forget, I should mention that the property itself was immaculate and colorful. There were no puddles in sight even though it had rained just the day before. Everything was well maintained and landscaped beautifully.
After everyone had their photos taken, we were instructed to form a large circle. Rob then began teaching us about hybrids and how some naturally occur in the wild. He asked us questions to see how much we knew about the many different hybrid species. He would name a hybrid and then ask us to figure out what two species got together to produce said hybrid.
For example, he asked what two animals make up a 'pizzly'. Anxious to participate I of course said a polar bear and a grizzly bear but my answer wasn’t heard and to my dismay the credit for answering the question correctly went to someone else. Here is some information on the pizzly hybrid in case you have never heard of one.
People were coming up with ridiculous answers to Rob's hybrid questions which I found hilarious. I thought it was great that they were educating people about hybrids and how they can sometimes occur in nature despite what organizations like Big Cat Rescue say. I already knew about some of the many different types of naturally occurring hybrids such as the coywolf.
With the lesson about hybrids over, we were instructed to go sit on some benches that were placed closely together. Once everyone was seated, we were instructed to squish together closely and to keep our hands up like we were playing an invisible piano. I figured out what was coming next when a guy with a binturong on his shoulders came walking towards us. The binturong would be walking across all of our laps and we were told to keep its smell in mind as it passed underneath our hands. I thought that was pretty cool and as a bonus my hands now smelled like popcorn. Who would’ve known binturongs smelled like popcorn out of all things? After the binturong made its short journey across everyone's laps it was rewarded with a banana.
Next we were led to a row of canopies that had chairs beneath them for us to sit in. Across from us, beneath the shade of another canopy, sitting on a small wooden platform, was a magnificent cheetah. The cheetah was wearing both a harness and a leash around its waist which were being held by Moksha and another young woman. We were educated about cheetahs and Moksha explained how she and the cheetah were “besties”. The cheetah was led closely past the row of seated people so everyone could get an up close look at it as it walked by. My guesses as to how big cheetahs are when compared to people ended up being correct.
After that awesome encounter, we were told we would now be introduced to some cubs. This announcement elicited excitement from everyone. We passed over a small bridge and a large pond that an alligator was floating in. Someone thought the alligator was a statue because it was free to exit the pond at will.
We ended at an area that had two large wooden buildings parallel to each other. Between the buildings was a large circular wooden pen divided into two sides. The pen’s perimeter was composed of built in benches that formed the walls. There were large umbrellas accompanied by a giant tree that provided the shade for the pen. Everyone was directed to sit on the benches and we were provided instructions for correctly holding a tiger cub and a bottle because everybody would now have their picture taken feeding a cub on their laps. The cubs didn’t seem to mind at all because they were too busy sucking on their bottled treat.
We then split into two groups. Each group went into one of the two sections of the pen. We were instructed to sit down with our legs straight out and told to not put our hands on any of the cubs faces. I assume we were told to not put our hands on the cubs faces because they would likely play bite, the same as puppies do.
After everyone complied, two tiger cubs, one smaller tiger cub, a lynx and a cougar cub were brought in. The cubs were rotated between our two groups under the watchful eyes of their handlers. The two larger tiger cubs which were the size of small dogs were busy playing with each other and occasionally with the toys the handlers gave them. When they weren’t playing with each other, the cubs would take a break by laying down on our legs. Their play fighting would sometimes make it's way onto people’s laps, much to the delight of the children on our tour. I can only assume that this type of experience would further their interest in animals since it’s not everyday they can see and feel real life exotic cats that they have likely only previously seen on television or in pictures.
The smaller tiger cub was busy exploring the sounds and smells of the other animals and people in the wooden pen. It sniffed around and took breaks by finding a comfortable position on someone’s legs or stomach. At one point, it's exploring led it on a path behind people’s backs. Everyone obliged by scooting up a bit, leaving room for the cub to squeeze on by as it continued undisturbed on its journey.
The lynx was playing with a toy its handler had in their hand like a domesticated cat plays with string. Its antics would also end up on people’s laps at times. The cougar cub was content to just walk across people’s laps and sniff around.
The cub encounter lasted roughly around 10 to 20 minutes and was supervised at all times. The cubs had their own handlers and appeared happy and playful. They didn’t show any obvious signs of stress or discomfort. For some reason the cubs certainly found the smell of me and my boots interesting.
During the cub encounter, I couldn't help but think about Big Cat Rescue’s former bed and breakfast where they allowed people to rent cabins and spend the night with their cubs unsupervised. I assume Carole Baskin had no idea what she was doing since she had many of her cubs declawed for these sleepovers.
Once the cubs were taken out, three half- grown wolves were brought in. Two were grayish brown and one was black. Everyone was instructed to sit back on the benches so the black wolf could be led onto people's laps for photos. By no means am I an expert on wolves, but that particular wolf seemed really shy and nervous and so when it came to my turn to have the wolf lay across my lap I made sure to keep some distance between my face and the wolf's mouth. I have a dog, dogs are close to wolves, and I know when my dog is nervous. Better to be safe than sorry around nervous or shy animals.
The two other wolves were led around to greet everyone. They were completely outgoing and not nervous at all. I patted one on its head as it was sniffing my hand. It was so awesome meeting one of my most favorite animals.
After that experience we we separated into two groups again. Each group was led to one of the two large wooden buildings that I previously mentioned. We were told there would be snacks and drinks waiting for us at the top of the stairs but I wasn’t to thrilled since I was told there would only be…. vegetarian food (yuck). If you don't know, I am a very picky eater.
We walked up the stairs to the upper deck and there on top of tables were snacks and drinks. There was humus and some type of chip for dipping, a strange type of granola bar, an exotic African iced tea that wasn’t too my liking (disappointing since I love iced tea), water, and some other snack that I can’t seem to remember. My disappointment in the snacks didn’t last too long due to what was happening below us.
On the ground below, being led by Kody Antle, was a full grown tiger who seemed very interested in sniffing around the wooden pen we had recently vacated. Other handlers were setting up a lure system for the tigers to chase and I could see Doc Antle down below as well. He was operating the system that would reel in the lure. Rajani would be the one to release the lure for the tiger to chase and the lure operator had to make sure to not reel in the lure too slowly or the tiger could catch it. When a tiger chased the lure to the very end there was a piece of meat as a reward for the tiger and to distract it from the lure.
It was so awesome to see the tigers run, especially since you can hear their powerful paws hitting the ground. The design of the building provided a perfect unobstructed view of the tigers chasing the lure. Some of the people watching were concerned for Rajani since she had to stand in front of the tiger and hold the lure in her hand until she tossed it for the tiger to chase.
There were many tigers that had an opportunity to chase the lure. At one point, a tiger managed to catch the lure which then had to be carefully retrieved. Doc and Kody Antle managed to get the tiger to let go of the lure with the use of a bamboo cane that was used to tease the lure from the tiger's mouth. The tiger didn't want to let go but it eventually did and was treated with a bottle of milk. The tiger then made a second attempt to complete the run but this time was not able to catch the lure. I would definitely not want to be the one to take something away from a tiger.
I thought that was a great method to exercise the tigers since they would be running full speed. Big Cat Rescue and other facilities should definitely look into the lure system as a form of enrichment and exercising their cats. Big Cat Rescue only seems to give their cats cardboard, christmas trees, and pumpkins. The Houston Zoo at leasts hangs pieces of meat from trees.
After all of the tigers had their turn at the lure, we headed to a really large spacious enclosure that contained many different varieties of tigers ranging from white and the rare golden tabby to the more familiar orange and black. They all gathered close to the fence to get a taste of the milk that was being squirted into their mouths as our guide told us a little about each one. Being only a couple feet away from them made me really realize just how massive their heads are.
Moving on from that little detour, we were brought to a clearing that had a couple tall trees. We were instructed to form a circle again and in the middle was Rob, who now had a vulture perched on his gloved hand. He educated us about vultures and specifically talked about the vulture that was currently perched on his glove. He also gave us insight into his experience with falconry and how difficult it is to become licensed to work with these large birds of prey.
Rob got the vulture to perform a few tasks such as flying to a perch close to the ground and after pieces of meat he threw on the ground in different directions. That was pretty awesome and reminded me of of a certain Legend of Zelda game where Link could call a falcon and send it to fly at a particular object. I really hope my young readers know which particular game.
Next we were led through a path that cut through thick bushes and ended at a large wooden roofed porch. Along the way we were handed small cups of fruit smoothies that tasted great, even though they contained pulp. I was directed to sit in one of the few seats that were set up below the porch which meant I would be close to the action. When the few seats at the bottom were full everyone else lined up on the porch behind us.
Not even a minute later Doc Antle and two young chimpanzees came riding in on a elephant. What an amazing sight! After dismounting the elephant, Doc began educating and providing us background information on the elephant that now stood before us. He told us about how elephants use their trunk and demonstrated it by giving the elephant a harmonica which it played for a bit before handing it back to Doc.
We were told the elephant’s favorite snack is sour candy. He took out a piece of sour candy and the elephant opened its mouth. He then rubbed the candy on the elephant's tongue which caused the elephant to close its eyes as it savored the taste. Doc also demonstrated just how much fluids an elephant can take in with its trunk when it drinks.
A large container containing over a gallon of hawaiian punch sat in front of the elephant. At Doc's direction the elephant stuck its trunk in and sucked in almost all of the juice at once. When it finished drinking, Doc brought out a watermelon to demonstrate how powerful an elephant's mouth is. The elephant grabbed the watermelon with its trunk, placed it into its mouth, and effortlessly crushed it causing watermelon juice to spray out everywhere. Everyone was captivated by this astonishing demonstration.
I was caught completely off guard when I was called up to demonstrate how to feed an elephant a carrot. Being my introverted self you can just imagine how nervous I felt. I was handed a carrot from a buck of many and was told to walk towards the elephant and to stick my hand out with the carrot so it can grab it with its trunk. I did as I was told and was surprised by just how rough the elephant's skin was as it used its trunk to carefully grab the carrot from my hand. Doc then told me to pet the elephant too which confused me a little. How exactly does one go about petting an elephant when they’re so giant and their skin is so thick and rough? I did as I was told and cautiously petted it on its trunk, hoping I didn’t somehow do something wrong.
After everyone fed the elephant a carrot we were guided to a long wooden canopy lined with benches. Once everyone arrived, two little chimpanzees wearing shorts were brought out. They were really energetic and would swing from the rafters of the canopy without so much as breaking a sweat. Everybody had the opportunity to take a photo with the chimpanzees. One chimpanzee would sit on your lap, put one of its arms around your shoulder, and pose for the camera. The other was being carried by its handler and would go down the line of seated people and shake their hand. I was expecting a firm handshake but was disappointed. At least not everyone can say they shook hands with a chimpanzee. A cute little blond gibbon ape wearing diapers was also brought out for us to meet. Everyone was instructed to hold out both of their hands as if scooping up water to be able to hold the gibbon.
Next we were led to a small indoor auditorium that looked spectacular. At the bottom of varied-height stone seating with cushions was a huge glass window that provided a perfect view of a beautiful clean pool. The glass allowed us to see what's both above and below the water. They finally provided snacks that were more to my taste such as chips, soda, and water. After everyone took a seat we were told a story about a dog that befriended an orangutan and were shown a video about the odd animal couple who lived right there at T.I.G.E.R.S. At the video's end the actual dog we just learned about was brought into the building. Everyone was surprised yet again. The dog was happily greeting everyone. He was so cute and I of course petted him. I’m a dog person so that was a great part of the tour. After the dog was lead away we we all handed a 36 page book called “Animal Friendships of the Myrtle Beach Safari”. It contains stunning photos and some information on some of the animals and people we’d met. Free stuff is always good.
Now came time for the main event. A stunning display of handlers swimming before us with large tigers. It was so amazing how the glass allowed us to see all of the movements a tiger makes beneath the surface of the water while swimming. I’ve probably used the word “awesome”many times throughout this review but it's the only way I know to describe this exciting exhibition of tigers swimming with their trainers.
This ended our amazing tour. We were then led back to the lodge where numerous laptops were laid out on coffee tables. The laptops were there for people to choose their favorite photo of themselves during the tour to have it printed out. Everyone was told they could purchase cds containing all of their photos from the tour and a video of the tour as well. I don’t remember the prices but it was expensive.
While tour members viewed their photos I had the pleasure of having a one-on-one discussion with Doc Antle himself. Since I run BCR Watch I talked to Doc about what Big Cat Rescue says about he and other exotic animal exhibitors on their slanderous animal abuse website. Doc was very forthcoming about the differences in his and Carole Baskin's philosophies. We also discussed the politics of exotic ownership, his domain name dispute with Carole Baskin, Big Cat Rescue’s Washington lobbyist, and much more. I found Doc to be very knowledgable and an overall great speaker who articulated his points very clearly.
Before I left Doc gifted me the photos and video from my tour free of charge which I was very thankful for. I was also given a copy of his book called “Fierce Beauty”. It’s a great book filled with breathtaking pictures of big cats and commentary from famous animal people such as Jim Fowler. It would be great for a coffee table.... that is if I had a coffee table.
This concludes my review of the T.I.G.E.R.S Preserve. It is a very unique facility that specializes in education through animal ambassadors. Everyone there was very professional and seemed to know what they were doing at all times. All of the animals appeared very healthy and happy. Other than their choice of snacks, I have no complaints. Everything was clean and organized and there seemed to be a good balance of providing the best for both the people and the animals.
Disclaimer: The pictures above are owned and copyrighted by T.I.G.E.R.S. I was given permission to use the photos found on the CD solely for review purposes.
Myrtle Beach Safari Website: www.myrtlebeachsafari.com