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Up close with big cats

Furry guests take center stage at King Richard’s Faire, with education and conservation offered as part of the act

CARVER — You have to go to the very edge of “Carvershire” to see them. You have to walk past the wise-cracking guy with the penciled-on mustache cracking his whip, past the booths selling turkey legs and yards of beer. Not over by the fire-breathing human blockhead, the other way, next to the jousting fields. That's where you'll find them, just as you have for the past 30 years, the world's biggest cats — one a 900-pounder stretching out his body and drinking milk out of a baby bottle.

So after you’re done shopping for a sword, you can go see some of the rarest animals in the world.

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Dr. Bhagavan Antle brings the cats up from his 50-acre preserve in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He comes for an annual eight-week visit to King Richard’s Faire, the Renaissance fair that has operated every fall in Carver for more than 30 years. This year’s menagerie includes a baby chimp and a baby puma and Hercules the liger — the offspring of a male lion and female tiger, the biggest of the big cats.

Santi the puma.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Santi the puma.

On a visit during the week before the fair opened, sounds from a rehearsal floated from the King’s Stage — this year’s musical is “The Stolen Crown Affair” — past the rows of wooden benches in front of the Tiger Stage.

Antle, resembling Penn Jillette in solid build and radio-ready voice, shares the magician’s understanding that the audience is the absolute engine. Antle’s message is all passion and education: If the tigers’ environment crumbles, ours is next.

“Saving these animals is paramount to saving the world,’’ said Antle. “You’ve got to help take care of them.”

There’s not much of a “show” in the big cat show Antle presents at King Richard’s. There are no circus tricks, no flaming hoops or bicycle rides. While assistant Robert Johnson serves as host, Antle and trainers China York and Chris Heiden walk the animals out onstage and lead them up onto a table so the crowd can see and take pictures. Johnson’s talk includes a few well-worn jokes and a lot of information about the history and future of tigers.

The education comes between the oohing and aahing and camera clicks, with plenty of plugs for the importance of conservation, and how that requires cash.

Vali the year-old chimp and Santi the baby puma come out, as does a royal white tiger and a golden tabby. The bigger cats wear heavy chain collars. As gentle as they appear and as comfortable as they seem onstage, the animals still have all of their claws and teeth and are very powerful. The trainers let Johnson do the talking while they are ever mindful.

At 900 pounds, Hercules the liger is listed as the world's largest cat.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

At 900 pounds, Hercules the liger is listed as the world's largest cat.

Hercules the liger is always the big finish. Golden brown and more than 12 feet long, weighing 900 pounds, he is more than 150 pounds heavier than his parents combined. He stretches up a ladder while reaching for a snack — another photo op, another chance for the humans onstage to talk about fund-raising.

“It’s only places like King Richard’s Faire that give me the format to talk to people, make that connection, and get people to understand that they need to spend with us, so that we can take that money and put it into grass-roots, on-the-ground things,” Antle said.

The world has lost some 97 percent of wild tigers in just over a century, according to the World Wildlife Fund, with 3,200 or fewer alive today. Numbers of tigers in captivity are harder to come by, but there are thousands more in private hands than in the wild, according to many sources.

Antle opened T.I.G.E.R.S. (The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species) in 1992, in Myrtle Beach. He and his staff live on premises with the animals, and that 24/7 contact with the animals allows him to offer “intimate wildlife encounters” — the chance for visitors to be close to and even touch some of the animals.

“When they meet them and they get that one on one moment, it changes hearts and minds,’’ said Antle. “You can write about it all you want and television does not convey that same message. There’s nothing like having an orangutan hug you or having a tiger cub nuzzle up into your lap. It is an extraordinary experience.”

As with many issues related to animals, opinions about what constitutes proper handling are varied and passionate. Critics say his approach is misguided. Some animal-rights organizations oppose having wild animals perform in any manner.

“We are unambiguous about this,” said Rob Halpin, director of public relations for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Angell Animal Medical Center. “We are wholly philosophically opposed to the use of wild animals in any kind of circus or traveling show, or in any situation when they are entertaining.

“It is impossible to meet [a wild animal’s] needs in that environment,” he said. “All of their natural instincts . . . are blunted.”

The US Department of Agriculture, tasked with enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, has no problem with T.I.G.E.R.S. Spokesman David Sacks said Antle is in good standing and not the subject of any investigation by the USDA, which is empowered to make unannounced inspections and impose harsh penalties when warranted.

Members of the Grand Strand Humane Society, which serves the Myrtle Beach area, are big fans. For the last four years, T.I.G.E.R.S. has staged a fund-raiser for the nonprofit animal shelter, earning the praise of executive director Sandy Brown, who wrote, “We at Grand Strand Humane Society feel the same way about the domestic animals in our care . . . they are our feline and canine children.”

And Antle points out that he partners with many organizations, from his local humane society to the International Conservation Caucus Foundation and EARS (Elephants of Africa Rescue Society).

Bonnie Shapiro — who, with her late husband, Richard, launched a fair in the Midwest in 1972 before moving it to its year-round site in Carver in 1982 — estimates that 100,000 to 150,000 visitors come to Carvershire over the eight weekends each year, depending on the weather. And whereas the Washing Well Wenches may not be for everyone, seemingly all of those guests make it a point to catch “Tale of the Tiger” in one of the half-hour spots spread throughout the day.

Antle grew up in California and his family did well selling produce in mainland China. Using family connections, he went there to study medicine. Upon returning to the United States, Antle said, he was working at a health clinic, where he met a zookeeper. When Antle was asked to give a talk about how environment and health are connected, he asked the zookeeper if he could borrow a tiger baby.

The talk — and the tiger — was a success, said Antle. That led to more talks about tigers and the environment.

“I was a hippie guy, a medical doctor out of China doing my own thing, and I spun it all into an act.”

He kept the tiger, and the tiger’s brother, and acquired more animals. They soon were working in movies and television, accumulating more than 500 credits for working with animals.

Antle says in the late ’90s he started putting all of his time into conservation projects, including the Rare Species Fund. With the focus on conservation came the push to find ways to fund those projects.

Which is one of the things that bring him back to the 80-acre grounds each fall, and eight weeks amid the smell of kettle corn and the sounds of “Huzzah!”

Said Shapiro of her production, “When we talk about how authentic we are and how period we are, we are frivolous and fun. We certainly do pay homage to the 14th, 15th, and 16th century ... but we don’t pretend to ever be 100 percent authentic.”

Antle has been the only animal trainer Shapiro has ever worked with, and she has received nothing but positive feedback about the act.

“People are usually thrilled to have the education and to see the animals in person,” she said.

Antle says many of his staff were people he originally met in Carvershire.

“King Richard’s Faire has been a deep wide connection,” he said, “from show biz to conservation to family.”

John Vitti can be reached at jvitti@
globe.com.

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