The first anonymous call to 911 — that a man in a Harlem apartment had just been attacked by a pit bull — was an elaborate lie. So was the second, which emphasized that the man needed urgent medical assistance.
That last part was at least correct. Because when NYPD officers arrived at the Drew-Hamilton public housing complex, they found 37-year-old Antoine Yates on the floor, close to the fifth-floor elevators, “lying face-up” and “screaming and crying in pain.” His right forearm had clearly been torn open by fangs and what appeared to be claw marks. There was also a long gash on his right leg; it was deep enough that it exposed the whiteness of his bone. Despite the reasonable doubts raised by the cops and EMTs, in between cries of pain, Yates continued to offer the same lie as the anonymous 911 callers: He’d been bitten by a brown-and-white pit bull.
The truth, of course, was far wilder. Yates was lying to protect his best friend, his roommate and the one who nearly killed him — a 450-pound Siberian tiger named Ming.
After three years of peaceful co-existence, the tiger’s true nature, that of a ferociously violent super predator, had finally shown itself. That he’d been raised in Yates’ apartment since he was a cub was an open secret at Drew-Hamilton. In fact, Yates’ downstairs neighbor later complained to police that tiger urine often cascaded down her window, presumably dumped out by her upstairs neighbor.
Two days later, on October 3, 2003, NYPD officer Martin Duffy arrived on the scene and was handed a rope and a rifle. The plan was simple: Duffy would rappel down the side of the building, get a visual of the tiger in the apartment and fire a tranquilizer dart through the glass once he’d spotted the big cat. This all sounded fine and good while standing on the rooftop, but once Duffy was hanging off the side of the building, dangling like bait on a line, things became dicier.
“I introduced the rifle into the window,” Duffy told the New York Post in 2018. “I make sure the barrel isn’t blocked by the child safety gates, and I shoot one dart, and I’m successful in hitting him. I hit him and he jumps up and he runs away and he runs up to the far wall of the bedroom and he turns around and he comes running back at the window, at me. He actually comes up and charges the window and breaks the window.”
Luckily, the aforementioned child safety bars kept Ming from maiming Duffy, too. Fifteen minutes later, the tranquilizer dart kicked in, and Ming stumbled around the apartment before finally crumpling up against a pile of trash bags and furniture. Satisfied the tiger was incapacitated, a squad of NYPD officers, assisted by officials from the Wildlife Conservation Society, entered the apartment and clumsily attempted to haul the tiger out. They also had to remove a six-foot-long alligator named Al from the premises, too.
For keeping a coterie of wild animals in a New York City apartment, Yates was charged with first degree reckless endangerment, along with two counts of possession of a wild animal, a misdemeanor charge. During his initial court appearance, Yates explained his personal motivations for keeping a tiger in his apartment, “He was abandoned. I know how abandonment feels. I feel heartbroken. I miss him a lot. He’s like my brother, my best friend, my only friend, really.” Yates would later tell the Today Show, “Love is the key ingredient to owning any animal. Matter of fact, love is the key ingredient for us all to survive. So, what I did, I took that love, taking time to educate myself, disciplining myself to learn about what I’m getting into and the responsibility of what I’m dealing with.”
The most succinct way to explain why, from 2000 to 2003, Yates chose to live with a tiger is less a statement about him, and instead an indictment of America. As Yates explains to me in a recent phone interview, he felt like it was safer for him to lock himself inside of his apartment in a housing project in Harlem with a full-grown Siberian tiger than it was for him to continue walking around in America as a Black man. “I was sick and tired of it,” he tells me. “So I literally locked myself in the house, and I went and bought the tiger. Animals are only going to do what they set out to do as they were designed by God. But with a human, you never know what to expect. Never ever, ever, ever.”
It wasn’t just Ming and Al either. Yates also had kept two lions, Jabba and Nemo, in the apartment with him. Jabba, though, died as a cub (Yates won’t say how), and Nemo eventually passed away as well. Nemo’s death wasn’t unexpected as Yates had purchased him from a big cat dealer in Minnesota knowing full well that the lion cub was sick and unlikely to live even a few weeks. Under Yates’ care, however, he lasted a year.
“Nemo and Ming came together,” Yates recalls (he paid $3,500 for Ming). “Al had already been there. I had Al for years and years. I bought him locally in Jersey. It was a legal place. But what you see now is different from when I was doing it. There weren’t all those laws and restrictions in place. For people looking at it now and scratching their head about it, you have to understand that things have changed. They made laws right after the Ming incident. I think the only thing they still sell in New York is certain types of fish. They’re real strict.”
He knows this is his fault. “I can understand it when people say, ‘It was people like Antoine who made things bad.’ I get that, so I’m not even fighting that. But there’s people who are worse than Antoine.”
For example, Joe Exotic from Tiger King, which shows how leaving wild animals in the care of roadside attraction animal sanctuaries is no guarantee they’ll fare any better than they did in Yates’ public housing complex. In 2011, an investigator from the Humane Society went undercover at Exotic’s private zoo in Oklahoma and documented a litany of animal abuse. Per the report, Exotic’s tigers were often “punched, dragged and hit with whips.” Similarly, the investigator documented that Exotic’s preferred “method of tiger euthanasia was gunshot.” In all, Exotic’s sanctuary was “under investigation by the USDA for the deaths of 23 tiger cubs during a 13-month span in 2009-10.”
None of this surprises Yates. “That tiger show everyone’s talking about? I haven’t watched it yet. But a lot of people have been trying to get my replies on it, to see how I feel about it. I don’t have a comment on it,” he tells me. “Because I don’t comment on other animal people. I actually try to stay far away from other animal people because of how they work and how they move. A lot of these people have a persona. They have a mask. And people will think, ‘Wow, this guy has a beautiful heart, they love animals.’ But behind the scenes, you’ll be shocked — you’ll be like, ‘Wow, this is an animal guy?’ This same guy who’s an advocate for private ownership used to be an animal dealer?”
When I ask Yates if he was approached to be part of Tiger King, he sounds a little miffed that he wasn’t, before blaming it on never checking his social media. “They couldn’t find me, I don’t think,” Yates starts. He quickly, however, corrects himself: “I’m not saying they couldn’t. But I didn’t hear from them. I’ve been off-the-grid. I usually don’t get on Facebook, or any social media like that. I don’t know if they reached out or not, but even if they did, I wouldn’t have done it.”
To that end, he draws a clear distinction between how he lived with Ming and how Exotic, Carol Baskin and others featured in Tiger King live(d) with theirs. “My relationship with Ming was beautiful,” he tells me. “It was so beautiful you couldn’t pay me $10 million to erase my memories. Our bond was unique, it was different. I’m trying to give you a better understanding of our bond. Let’s take Joe Exotic, let’s take the lady from Florida, let’s take a thousand other tiger owners — I’mma show you the difference: Most of those owners only spend a fraction of the time with the animals. You know why? They have fences and enclosed backyards. So their environment is controlled.”
Yates, meanwhile, spent 23 hours a day living with Ming, not as owner and animal, but as roommates. He’d leave each morning for one hour, to attend to his needs and to buy food for his animals. He’d purchase roughly 20 pounds of meat a day, consisting of chunks of chicken, beef liver and bones. When he returned home, he’d make breakfast for himself and feed his animals. They’d all eat together. After that, they’d spend the rest of the day inside together. “I’m locked down in a house with a tiger — in a small environment. I have no other choice but to bond with Ming on a level that people can never understand. There’s no choice. It’s like playing a game of Russian Roulette. Put a bullet in it, spin it and click it.”
Yates describes their time together with a curiously casual tone: “We’d just have a natural day. It’s like you having a dog. It’s no different. If I’m laying down, he’s laying down right next to me. If I’m getting up to go to the bathroom, he’s getting up to follow me to the bathroom. If I said, ‘Hey-yo, Ming, sit down and chill out,’ he’d sit down and chill out. If I said, ‘Ming, go lay down and go to sleep,’ he’d go lay down and go to sleep.”
This connection is what Yates relied on for all his interactions with Ming, but he especially relied on it for discipline. “Whenever Ming did something wrong, I only had to look at him, and he knew it was wrong. I’d turn around and look at him, he’d look at me, go in the corner and curl up. I didn’t have to scream, I didn’t have to hit him. None of that.”
But if their relationship was so unique, if Yates was successfully living in harmony with a tiger (and an alligator), what disrupted their happy home? What was it that made Ming attack him that fateful October day?
Apparently, it was a sickly house cat named Shadow that Yates had recently taken in and was nursing back to health. “That day was the first time they’d seen each other,” Yates explains. “I always knew it was a risk. The thing is, when the two of them came face-to-face that day, that wasn’t never supposed to happen. I was thrown off my typical day-to-day routine. Instead of me coming back upstairs and putting Shadow away in his room, where he typically stayed and spent his whole day at, Shadow followed me into the room where Ming was at — and that’s when they came face-to-face.”
Yates’ voice grows distant like he’s watching it all happen again, helpless to change the outcome. “Shadow ran toward the kitchen, and Ming chased him,” he says. “I jumped in front of Ming, taking the brunt of the impact of his charge.”
“When I grabbed him, he bit down on my neck,” Yates continues, recounting how Ming stayed focused on Shadow, even as Yates used all his strength and will to deny the tiger that pleasure. “I grabbed him again, and he bit me on my forearm.” In fact, every time Ming leapt, Yates grabbed him and wrestled the 450-pound tiger back to the ground, yanking loose fur as Ming furiously clawed at him. Finally, perhaps out of frustration, Ming snapped his jaws shut, clamping down on Yates’ knee. “That had me going through flashes of life,” Yates says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, guess this is where I die at.’”
The tiger he’d raised from a cub had finally done the one thing anyone outside of the apartment would expect him to do, leaving Yates in a life-or-death situation. “I got focused, and I calmly started talking to Ming,” Yates says. “I ignored everything else that was going on — the pain, the adrenaline flowing, everything. I just blanked it out and focused on — the same way I’m talking to you — being calm. I had to talk to him like that. Once I got control of that situation, I had to get my leg out of his mouth. I coached him about three times with the word, ‘No!’ I turned my leg loose from his mouth. Then I turned and tried to walk away, down the hallway. Ming turned and tried to charge me again. I said, ‘Ming, no!’ And he went into the bathroom. I closed the door, and I held the door shut until my brothers and them came upstairs.”
When I ask Yates what he thinks changed that day for Ming, he insists nothing. “When I jumped in front of him, Ming’s head hit my chest, and I fell to the floor. But me yanking on him caused him to bite. The cause and effect, the action and reaction. It’s no different than if you’re walking down the street and one of your closest friends sneaks up behind you and pulls on your jacket. You’re gonna turn around and swing. That’s basically what all that was about. It was never an attack. But that’s what they chose to write. And I was like, ‘If that’s what people choose to believe, then they believe it.’ But to me it sounds crazy. To me, if somebody says that someone got mauled, it means that person is in a real bad situation, right? But I’m walking around. I’m still alive. I haven’t lost a limb. You couldn’t even tell I got bit by a tiger, unless I told you and I showed you the mark.”
After the police investigated, after they shot Ming and cleared Yates’ apartment of animals, Yates had to fight to protect his own freedom. He was looking at seven years in jail. But mostly, he just wanted Ming back. That wasn’t happening, though. “Excuse my French, but I had a piece of shit lawyer from the Johnnie Cochran firm who was only in there for his own ulterior motives,” Yates tells me. “That’s as simple and nice as I can put it.”
He took the plea bargain in his case, and served five months. At that time, Yates told the court, “I feel hurt, torn up. I have lost everything: my house, the only friend I had — Ming — and I lost my honor, so that my mother could be free.” His mother was facing her own charges of child endangerment since she’d reportedly babysat a child in the apartment with Ming and Al. By Yates taking a plea deal, she avoided jail time.
Once Yates was freed, he got a new lawyer and sued the city to get Ming back. His case, however, was dismissed. Yates thinks it’s because his lawsuit put way too many people’s careers on the line. “They shot my thing down,” he says. “They threw it out because there were a lot of politics to it. They couldn’t let stuff get out, because, think about it — I raised a tiger in the projects. When you live in a New York City Housing Authority complex, it’s mandated that people have to come in and do inspections quarterly — meaning, they were supposed to be coming into my apartment. And they were putting it down that they’d been in and checked apartment 5E, my apartment. So you have that lie, there in black and white: ‘You guys were checking this property all this time and you’re telling me you never noticed this man has a tiger in there?’ You see what I’m trying to say? It felt like I was going against the entire New York City. How does a person who’s never been in jail or trouble before get probation and jail time for a nonviolent crime?”
As for Ming, after he was removed from the apartment, he was taken to live at Noah’s Lost Ark animal sanctuary in Ohio, where he lived out the rest of his days, until he finally passed away in October.
Yates didn’t attend the funeral. He also insists that it wasn’t difficult to not get the chance to say goodbye. “I just accepted that he was gone,” he says. “It’s no different than if a brother or sister passed. I come to the reality that they’re gone. I can’t stop and worry about that. You know what I do? I hold onto the memories that I have with them. If he’s gone, it’s not like I can snap my fingers and bring him back. So why would I waste that energy? If I mourn him, I’m gonna mourn inside.”
On a final note, I ask Yates how he and his animals — he now keeps a more humble collection of snakes, lizards, turtles, tortoises and chinchillas — are doing in quarantine in Philadelphia, where he currently lives. A sunniness returns to his voice. “I locked myself in a house for five years. That’s more challenging than somebody else forcing you to stay in the house,” Yates says, “If I can do it, everybody can do it. I hope that as many people as possible come out of this unscathed, healthy and ready to create something different. Because this is our opportunity to really reinvent ourselves.”
He speaks, of course, from experience, a wiser man than all the other tiger kings.