Former tiger caretaker Barbara Fisher is featured in Netflix's hit true-crime docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Below, she opens up to ELLE.com about what it was really like working for big cat owner Bhagavan “Doc” Antle at his controversial Myrtle Beach zoo.
I left Bhagavan “Doc” Antle's big cat preserve in South Carolina for good in 2007. I'd just returned from my grandfather's funeral in Iowa, where I reconnected with my high school crush. We fell in love very quickly. It took his outside perspective for me to realize that I didn't want to be on the compound anymore, and also that Bhagavan, my boss, might not have had my best interests at heart.
He hired me back in 1999. I got terrible grades in high school and couldn't get into college. I was 19 at the time, and dying to do something cool. We had dogs and cats and pet rats growing up. I was an animal lover and a longtime vegetarian, but it's not like I had aspirations to be a tiger trainer. Tigers weren't even my favorite animal.
Somehow, I stumbled on Bhagavan's Myrtle Beach Safari website. He was also a vegetarian and a yogi, which I admired. I was really into transcendental meditation back then.
I thought to myself: "He's just like me!" I called him up on a whim, and he hired me on the spot. He had two young kids, Tawny and Kody, who were four and nine then. I had experience babysitting children, and ended up taking care of them.
The day I told my parents I was leaving to live at a zoo was the same day they split up. It was turmoil at the house. I sold my car and packed one suitcase with some clothes and a few knickknacks. I grabbed my pillow from my bed and asked my dad to drop me off.
He didn't really say anything when we arrived at Bhagavan's compound, where beautiful women wandered around with tigers on leashes. But I was blown away. It was absolutely stunning.
We sat down with Bhagavan in his office and a female apprentice dressed in tiger print immediately plopped down on his lap. He kept joking to my dad: "The pretty ones always end up getting married and running away with some boy!" The last thing my dad said before leaving was, "Don't fall in love with your boss."
Even if he told me not to stay, I don't think I would have listened.
That first night, Bhagavan led me to my sleeping quarters. I regretted coming almost immediately, but without a car or a plan, I couldn't leave. I was stuck. I though to myself: "Well, we'll just see how this goes."
The next day, he informed us we'd be leaving to do a Renaissance fair in Virginia. I'd just gotten settled in, and already I was packing to go somewhere else. Everything moved so fast, but the fair turned out to be amazing. I'd always felt like an outsider, but being there with the other misfits made me feel normal, like I belonged to something for the very first time. I loved it. I made a lot of friends with other fair workers during the four months we were there. I even struck up a romantic relationship with a guy.
We broke up after I moved back to Bhagavan's facility. I then lived in a modified horse stall. Most of the apprentices now live in actual trailers separate from the training room, but back then it was hard.
[Editor's note: When reached by phone, Antle asserted that the living conditions on his properties are "pristine."]
I quickly developed a work routine: Wake up in the morning, clean cages, and defrost meat for the animals. I'd do landscaping and repairs, and then feed the tiger cubs. That was always my favorite part. I have no idea how many I raised, there were so many. I think about them all the time.
Several trainers and I bunked together, and the dynamic was bizarre. They were the only people I spent any unguarded time with, so we were competitive. We were also the only source of comfort and support for each other. We were everything to everyone. I developed several incredibly deep friendships with women I keep in touch with to this day. After Tiger King aired, they were among the first people I called. You had to have lived through it to truly understand what happened.
I got breast implants while I was there, and that wasn't the only thing I altered about myself. A group of us also had our names legally changed. I became "Bala." My dad was furious, and I felt really uncomfortable with the whole thing, but other employees were doing it, too.
Reconnecting with Asa, the boy from high school, changed everything. I stayed up super late texting him from my cell phone, which we used like walkie talkies around Bhagavan's facility during the day.
When I told him I was a tiger trainer, he said: "Oh cool!" He was really intrigued. I even wondered if he would consider moving in with me there. But the more we talked, the more I realized I didn't want to be there anymore. During one of his visits in 2007, I wound up getting pregnant. That made it much easier to leave.
Bhagavan took it very well. "Will you please continue working through the summer?" he asked. I was valuable to him because I was good at raising tiger cubs. He offered me $10,000, so I stayed. Asa lived with me during that last month on the facility. When I did leave, I was on excellent terms with Bhagavan. I said goodbye with a hug and a kiss. Then, I drove away forever.
After giving birth to my son, [Antle] was one of my first calls from the delivery room. It was like calling a relative.
Everything changed in 2015, when Rolling Stone published an article titled "The Man Who Made Animal Friends." To me, it was the first time outsiders got a glimpse into what it was actually like living there. After that, I found it really hard to talk about my experience. My heart raced. I'd sweat and cry. I went to therapy and found comfort in talking to other women who left. It's gotten easier with time.
Now I'm a preschool teacher with a great support network. I married Asa, and I knit and cook and take comfort in maintaining close friendships. I no longer practice yoga, because it reminds me of Bhagavan. It's not my way of relaxing, by any means.
When the Tiger King filmmakers called me, I was hesitant to participate. But I realized I had to say something.
I was terrified of becoming a meme, but I really liked [director Rebecca Chaiklin]. We spoke on the phone several times, and she seemed intent on getting the story right. I trusted her. The film crew was at my house for hours. They had so much footage.
I had no idea how I was going to come out looking, but when I watched it with my husband for the first time, I felt relief. I was delighted by how real Bhagavan appeared in the series. He didn't put on a facade. This was the real him. I wanted—and needed—the world to see that.
I feel like I'm finally being understood and finally being heard. I hope the takeaway from Tiger King is that this is an unregulated world where people can get away with anything they want to. Now maybe we can do something about the treatment of the animals.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Rose Minutaglio Staff Writer Rose is a Staff Writer at ELLE.com covering culture, news, and women's issues.