Hercules leads pack of big cats at Carver's King Richard's Faire
Leave your car and your 21st century attitude in the parking lot at King Richard's Faire, which opens this weekend in Carver for it's 29th season. Once you step through the gates, you're surrounded by knights and wenches, by people jousting on horseback and engaging in axe throwing contests, by hand-cranked mechanical rides and huge, delicious roasted turkey legs (and the obligatory bloomin' onions).
And there are the big cats. Really big cats.
In his wildly popular stage show "The Tale of the Tiger," Dr. Bhagavan Antle, who's celebrating his 27th season with the Faire, features 10 of the magnificent animals, representing four distinct color categories: the Southeast Asian, or Bengal tiger; the royal white tiger, the snow tiger, and the golden tabby tiger.
"He's the world's biggest cat," says Antle, 50, sounding like a proud father as Hercules nuzzles his neck. "He's 900 pounds and 12 feet tall, and he's in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records.’ He's a phenomenal big guy." Hercules is the offspring of a male lion and a female tiger, and is the result of a phenomenon known as hybrid vigor.
"When you're blending two species, you can line the genetics up just right and you gain all of the best qualities of both parents, and often get enormous size," explains Antle, who really likes to explain things.
"Tigons are the opposite," he continues. "A male tiger with a female lion produces a tigon. They're healthy, beautiful, good animals, but they they don't become as large as ligers, they generally stay about the size of or a little bigger than their parents."
'Asked how Hercules' mom and dad met, Antle is happy to share the story.
"Arthur the lion was born in 1985, and came to the faire with me for 20-plus years," he says. "We didn't have any female lions, but there were several female tigers. Arthur, as a young guy, was always introduced to female tigers. He grew up around them, and he found tiger girlfriends, so twice in his life he reproduced litters of ligers. The first time was when he was about 2 years old. He passed away at the age of 22, but 8 years ago he reproduced again. Hercules is from the second litter."
When Antle isn't at the annual September/October faire, he's either at his T.I.G.E.R.S preserve in South Carolina or wintering at his big cat facility in Florida. In what can only be called previous lives, he was a cowboy on his parents' cattle ranch; a professional dog trainer; a sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll hippie in the '70s; a doctor mixing traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine; a disciple of the spiritual teacher and founder of the Yogaville ashram Swami Satchidananda; and a lecturer promoting health and diet.
It was at one of those lectures that he got to talking with a zoo director who eventually loaned Antle a tiger. The cat represented beauty, power, and grace, and, because audiences were enthralled, fit perfectly within Antle's health seminar clinics.
Antle's informative presentations and the tiger's presence led to lecture opportunities all over the country - and a longstanding gig at Exxon conventions - as well as invitations to different renaissance festivals. Bonnie and Richard Shapiro, who created King Richard's Faire, signed him up in 1983.
Since that time, his shows have given audiences the chance to see these magnificent cats up close, while he talks about the ever-growing plight of animals around the world or the positive side of captive breeding programs and usually manages to sneak in messages promoting vegetarianism. If you're lucky, you might get to hear him bring up the black-footed cat, which he calls "the smallest coolest little cat in South Africa. Most people don't even know they exist. A very rare, incredible little wildcat."
He's best known for his work with tigers, which he trains, almost dog-like, via positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.
"You teach them to come when you want them to come, and you teach them their name," he says. "You do that in an enclosed area, with a leash on, and you give rewards - a baby bottle with milk, and food. But the greatest paycheck a tiger can ever receive is new sights and sounds and smells.
"But it's all about finding the right tiger," he adds. "Not all tigers want to do this, not all tigers are interested in being in any kind of correction or being told what to do." Antle won't go so far as to say ligers are any easier to train than tigers, but he admits that he's had great luck with ligers.
"They have personalities where they enjoy human contact - that's more liony of them," he says. "But they also have more energy and they want to go out and do more things, which is more tiger-like." So is Antle, who hugs and kisses his charges and lets them kiss him, a kind of big cat whisperer? He thinks about that for a few moments and says, "The life I had growing up, always being around animals, has helped me out. I believe that my life spent as a guy learning to meditate and practice yoga also gives me a much greater capacity to pay attention and concentrate with the cats."