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'Tiger King' star Doc Antle pleads guilty to federal money laundering, wildlife trafficking

The Justice Department says Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle, who runs the Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina, has pleaded guilty to charges on Monday.

"Tiger King" television series star Bhagavan "Doc" Antle pleaded guilty Monday to federal wildlife trafficking and money laundering charges after prosecutors alleged he directed the sale or purchase of multiple animals under the Endangered Species Act and then tried to cover it up. 

The Justice Department said the 63-year-old from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina — who was featured prominently in "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," a 2020 Netflix documentary miniseries that focused on tiger breeders and private zoo operators in the U.S. — pleaded guilty to 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 conspired 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 of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act," the Justice Department added in a statement. 

"Antle used bulk cash payments to hide the transactions and falsified paperwork to show non-commercial transfers entirely within one state," it added. "Antle also requested that payments for endangered species be made to his nonprofit so they could appear as ‘donations.’" 

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Antle is described by the Justice Department as the owner and operator of The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) — known as Myrtle Beach Safari — which is a "50-acre wildlife tropical preserve that offers tours and private encounters with exotic wildlife." In addition, he is the director of the nonprofit Rare Species Fund, which is registered in South Carolina, officials say. 

"The investigation also uncovered evidence of money laundering between February and April 2022, when Antle and a coconspirator conducted financial transactions with cash they believed was obtained from transporting and harboring illegal aliens," the Justice Department said. "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 that had provided the cash after taking a 15% fee per transaction." 

The "Tiger King" series focuses heavily on Oklahoma zoo operator Joe Exotic, who was also targeted for animal mistreatment and was convicted in a plot to kill a rival, Carole Baskin. 

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Animal rights advocates have accused Antle of mistreating lions and other wildlife. In 2020, he was indicted in Virginia on animal cruelty and wildlife trafficking charges

Antle has a history of recorded violations, going back as far as 1989, when he was fined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for abandoning deer and peacocks at his zoo in Virginia. Over the years, he has more than 35 USDA violations for mistreating animals. 

"The defendant held himself out as a conservationist, yet repeatedly violated laws protecting endangered animals and then tried to cover up those violations," Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said in a statement Monday announcing Antle’s guilty plea. 

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The Justice Department says 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." 

FOX Business’ Greg Wehner contributed to this report. 

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