WINCHESTER — Already facing accusations of having allegedly wretched conditions at his roadside zoo, a Frederick County man is now accused of illegally selling lions to a celebrity wild animal trainer, who is charged with animal cruelty.
Keith Arnold Wilson, owner of Wilson's Wild Animal Park on West Parkins Mill Road, was indicted Thursday by a Frederick County grand jury on 10 counts of animal cruelty, a single count of depriving an animal of food and 10 counts of selling endangered species. Wilson is accused of selling the lions to Mahamayvi Bhagavan "Doc" Antle, an animal trainer and owner of Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina. Antle is one of the people profiled on "Tiger King," a Netflix documentary series on eccentric wild animal breeders and a murder-for-hire plot.
A news release from the Virginia Attorney General's Office on Friday said the indictments came after a "months-long" investigation by its Animal Law Unit that seized 119 animals from Wilson's Wild Animal Park on Aug. 15-16, 2019. The park, which opened in 1976, has been closed since the raid. Wilson is scheduled to go on trial for the original charges in June.
Authorities, who filmed the conditions at the park at 985 W. Parkins Mill Road during the seizures, said some of the animals had severe skin conditions and some were left with inadequate food and water. Documented conditions included maggot-infested meat, two dead animals left in a freezer, areas filled with feces and animals left without water.
K. Michelle Welch, senior assistant attorney general and animal law unit director, wouldn't comment on Friday on specifics regarding the latest charges because she said it might compromise the case. Questions asked by The Winchester Star included how much money the lions were purchased for, the conditions in which they were transported to South Carolina and whether they were to be pets or exhibited at the Myrtle Beach park. The release provided few details, simply saying Antle and Wilson "trafficked lion cubs between Virginia and South Carolina."
The case also doesn't include a criminal complaint detailing the probable cause for the charges. However, the indictment said the lions were transported in a "cruel, brutal, or inhumane manner so as to produce torture or unnecessary suffering."
Wilson, 67, of the 900 block of West Parkins Mill Road, denied the allegations in a brief interview on Friday.
"Prosecutors can say what they want," he said. "They're not bound by the truth."
Wilson referred further comments to The Cavalry Group, a Missouri-based organization that advocates for animal owners and the animal industry. Its website said its accomplishments include preventing passage of a law that would have cracked down on puppy mills in Missouri. It asserted the law would have been unfair to pet store owners.
Despite video evidence to the contrary, group President Mindy Patterson wrote in an email that Wilson's park had a "perfect record and was an exemplary facility." She accused Welch of having an "animal rights extremist ideology" and said the latest charges are part of an attempt by Welch to destroy Wilson's business. "The Cavalry Group maintains that Keith Wilson is innocent of all charges and that he will be cleared when he has his day in court," Patterson said.
Antle, 60, of the 800 block of Folly Ranch Lane in Myrtle Beach, was charged with nine counts of animal cruelty and seven counts of selling an endangered species. Also charged were Antle's daughter and another woman who lives with him.
Tawny Antle, 26, was charged with cruelty to animals and selling an endangered species. Tilkam Watterson, 53, was charged with two counts each of animal cruelty and selling endangered species.
The charges against the elder Antle are the latest in some 30 years of allegations of animal mistreatment or neglect. A 1990 article by the Knoxville News-Sentinel in Tennessee said the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated a person being mauled at the park he ran in Buckingham County in Virginia as well as complaints of contaminated animal food and cramped conditions. Other published reports say he was fined or investigated for improperly transporting animals from Tennessee to Virginia in the 1990s and that animals at a park he ran in Miami got loose causing a stampede by visitors in 2010.
A spokeswoman for Antle didn't return calls and emails on Friday. However, in a video by Rolling Stone magazine on the Myrtle Beach Safari website, Antle is portrayed as defending wild animals rather than exploiting them for personal gain. Antle — who describes training tigers used in performances by pop stars Sean "Diddy" Combs and Britney Spears — is seen riding an elephant. Customers, who pay $339 each for "Safari Nights," are seen cuddling with tiger cubs.
"People say that there's something wrong with the essential way that we use our animals for wildlife education, but media and live performances makes one of the strongest statements to people about why conservation matters," he said. "If you trade hug a tiger for listen to this idea on conservation, it's an incredibly valuable exchange."