Long before Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin became household names, there was another Tiger King in town- or “Tiger Man”, as they called him.
In 2001, Antoine Yates became known as New York City’s Tiger Man, when he was found to be keeping a 425-pound tiger in his Harlem apartment.
Ming the Tiger
Mr. Yates was 31 years old and working as a construction worker when he purchased the eight-week-old Siberian-Bengal mix. Inspired by his fascination with Chinese culture, he named the little cub Ming .
Ming grew quickly, and through a steady diet of twenty pounds of chicken thighs per day, the little tiger grew to its full-grown weight of 425 pounds in just three years.
“I didn’t want to domesticate him,” said Yates. “I did a lot of enrichment with him to feed his instinct. I was like a drill sergeant.” 
Yates built a sandbox in Ming’s room, and played games like hide-and-go-seek with items sprayed with cologne, or gave Ming frozen slabs of meat to play with as they thawed. In his words, he did things with the tiger to “stimulate his mind”.
Yates considered Ming to be his best friend and claims that he had a natural bond with the animal. In his opinion, raising a four hundred pound tiger was no different than raising a monkey or a snake.
A Plan Interrupted
Yates had put a down payment on a plot of land north of the city where he planned to create his own “Garden of Eden”- a space where humans and animals could interact in harmony with one another.
“It was all carefully thought-through — I was a matter of months from securing the property,” he said. “My whole intention was to keep Ming low-key for a little bit of time before moving him, but it was interrupted.”
This interruption occurred in 2003. Yates had brought home a stray kitten, and when Ming lunged at the little cat, Yates attempted to intervene. The result was a big, tiger-sized gash to the leg.
The Tiger Man took himself to the hospital and told doctors that he had been attacked by a pitbull. Judging by the size of the wound, however, the doctors suspected that Yates wasn’t telling them the truth.
They notified the authorities, and when officers arrived at his apartment, they managed to get a glimpse inside using a miniature camera. Of course, it is difficult for a 425-pound tiger to hide in a small NYC apartment, so Yate’s secret was out.
An officer then repelled down the side of the building, shot Ming with a tranquilizer gun, and the tiger was carried out of the apartment on a tarp.
Harlem’s Best-Kept Secret
Housing Authority officials stated that they had no idea that Yates was keeping a tiger. His neighbors, however, often complained about the urine smell coming from his apartment. Jeremy Saland, the case’s prosecuting attorney, says that a situation like this could never happen today.
Ming was relocated to an animal sanctuary called Noah’s Lost Ark in Berlin, Ohio, where he died of natural causes in 2019. Yates, on the other hand, served three months in prison and five years of probation for reckless endangerment and possession of a wild animal.
“I never put the public or another soul in harm’s way. I’m not a hard-core criminal,” Yates insisted. “I’m just a person with a passion for animals.”
Captive Tigers in America
There are an estimated five thousand captive tigers in the United States alone, compared to only 3900 in the wild. Only about six percent of these tigers live in accredited zoos or facilities.
Despite what some of these tiger-owners might say, breeding wild animals in captivity is not a form of animal conservation. In most cases, private tiger owners are not properly trained to care for these animals, and after years of unhealthy human contact, confined spaces, poor diets or health issues from inbreeding, they cannot be released back into the wild, so they do not support population growth.
The exotic pet industry also helps fuel the illegal wild animal trade. Cubs are the main attraction at many of the wildlife parks, which means owners are constantly breeding to keep a regular supply of baby animals.
Tigers that have grown too big for contact with the public are less useful, and so are often sold illegally. This helps to sustain the black market trade of wildlife, which encourages poaching and capture of tigers in the wild.
He Would do it Again
Despite his stint in jail, Yates says that he loved his experience taking care of “unusual” pets, and if he had the chance, he would do it again. As for his opinion on the Tiger King?
“I was turned off by it,” he said. “It just shows how ignorant these so-called exotic animal lovers can be.”
- ‘A 425-Pound Tiger Living in a Harlem Apartment? Yes, It Happened’ New York Times
- ‘How NYC’s “Tiger Man” Raised 425-Pound Pet Cat In Harlem Apartment’ Investigation Discovery Aaron Rasmussen. Published April 22, 2020.