10 Questions with Antoine Yates
A discussion with the man who kept a tiger in his Harlem apartment.
If you thought you knew the whole story about Antoine Yates and his tiger, Ming, guess again. There's only so much we can fit into an episode of Fatal Attractions, so find out what you missed in our exclusive interview.
Animal Planet: OK, let's begin with some "fill-in-the-blanks" about the episode. Your brother mentioned that in your letters to him, you would write what he described as your own version of scripture. Can you talk a little bit about what that was, and what compelled you to write in that way?
Antoine Yates: Yeah basically, what I have been doing is I became autodidactic. I started educating myself from a young age. And you know, I started to take notes and write about different things that interest me in life. I started to reflect on some of the things that were happening in life. So, as far as my scripture writing was concerned, it was not mimicking the Bible whatsoever, but it was actually trying to create an existent place within what I was living and dealing with already. You know, like the poverty, the crime, the underprivileged, lack-of-education. So it was sort of me writing a blueprint for the change that I'd like to see take place in a lot of these urban areas.
Animal Planet: In the episode, when talking about your plans for the zoo, it says that your mother and sister decided not to go ahead with the idea. Why is that?
Antoine Yates: A lot of people, and I have learned this throughout my journey in life, sometimes people do not have enough strength or faith to continue on any type of mission or goals that they set out to do. So, what I was doing was trying to do things the most logical way, and that was going to family for support. This was not having the knowledge that I have now to attain and go look for investors and so forth. So they kind of believed that it wouldn't have happened, they saw it as too far-fetched a dream to ever accomplish. Like Disney, when he decided to build Disneyland, a lot of people didn't believe in that concept. But, he kept it moving forward until he accomplished his vision. And ironically, speaking of the zoo plans, that's about to happen as we speak. I'm actually working with investors now. I have two site locations. One will be in Las Vegas, the other will be in North Carolina. So I have some major investors and supporters that are actually on board, and I educated myself in the business aspect of the zoological world, and finally it's going to happen.
APL: We'd like to backtrack a little bit here and talk some more about Ming. Take me through a typical day with Ming in your apartment.
Yates: First, let me say that it was a very emotional and compelling experience. But, our typical day would be 23 hours of the day that we'd be locked up in the house together. For that one hour early in the morning, let's say between 6 and 7 a.m., I'd take an hour out. I might go outside and do a quick workout and go to the supermarket and buy most of the meat department out. Then I'd come back home. And I started to work with him on some enrichment programs that I created for him, to help stimulate his instinct; not try to take it away from him, but more to enhance it and have him indulge in his instincts. Our typical day would be practically a little interaction together. And normally big cats will sleep most of the day once they're full, so he'd actually be asleep, and that's when I could take care of a lot of work. But he'd be pinned right there to me. I could only leave a certain amount of space between us before he'd jump up and wake up. So it was like an attachment thing, a shadow. So I could get up and go, but we'd interact throughout the whole house, whether it was working, reading, watching TV, playing music or so forth. But we were always like night and day, always together.
APL: You mentioned creating enrichment activities for Ming. Can you tell us a bit more about what those were?
Yates: Some of the enrichment activities... What I wanted to do was, you know, there was no way possible I could've given him 100,000 acres to be an adult male tiger. So some of the enrichment programs I wanted to work with him on were on his senses. So what I would do would be to spread different fragrances on some of his favorite objects that he usually played with and hide them so he could search out and find them. Also, I created frozen liver dinners for him. I'd take a pan of liver, freeze it up, and throw a rubber mat down. He'd jump on that and play with it all day until it melted down. So there were various enrichment programs I worked with him on.
APL: You had Ming since he was a very young...
Yates: Yeah, since he was seven weeks.
APL: Was it easier or harder to take care of him as a baby? How did his habits change as he grew up?
Yates: I never found it difficult to raise him at all. Prior to raising Ming, I had raised over 400 other species of animals that I had... I wouldn't say the same identical relationship with, but similar to. So I had lions and primates, and almost every childhood animal you could possibly think of. So it wasn't like a first-time thing of me just going to get a tiger, you know. I've actually been doing this since I was three years old. It came naturally.
APL: How did Ming react to your brother, Aaron? How much interaction did he have with Ming?
Yates: He never was in the apartment during the beginning stages of our journey, me and Ming. He actually started coming into the apartment maybe 5 or 6 months prior to October 3rd, when the incident occurred. Ming rather took to other human beings. Not aggressively, but very passively. He wasn't that fierce tiger, even though there always is a sense of danger with big cats. You have to respect what type of force that you're dealing with. But I wouldn't allow for Aaron or anybody else to really interact with Ming like that. As far as seeing Ming in the present, yeah, Aaron has seen him a few times up close, but never to where Aaron can sit down with Ming, lay down with him or anything like that. I wouldn't feel comfortable enough to allow that to happen. I think it would be very irresponsible of me, because the slightest reaction from Aaron could cause Ming to really react to his response, and that is something I was not prepared for. (That is,) unless I would have worked with Aaron himself, and then I would feel a little bit more at ease to say well, OK, we can interact together with Ming.
APL: Speaking of bringing other people or animals into the situation, how quickly did you notice the dynamic change once you brought Shadow, the house cat, into the apartment?
Yates: OK, see, well that's the weirdest thing ever, because a lot of people don't really know the story about that. I've never really talked about it. I really just kept it real sealed up. Ming never reacted to Shadow, because he'd never seen Shadow until that very day. You see, I found the cat, or the cat found me. It's ironic because here lies a sick cat on my doorstep when I leave at that 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning, that little break that I get. I'm walking out my door and there's a cat on my door dying. And you know, I'd educated myself in veterinary medicine, so I was able to really respond to his illness with a few procedures with him being dehydrated and so forth. I got the cat back together and the cat was doing good. I decided to keep the cat, but I kept him isolated in a single room, because I had a five-bedroom apartment. My thing was that, OK, I can't let this cat run around the house loose, because, mind you, I had a seven- or eight-foot alligator and I had a 500-pound tiger, you know what I mean?
APL: You had an alligator at the same time you had Ming?
Yates: Oh yeah! And see that's what a lot of people ... it's in the story, because when they took Ming out, they took out Al, and they were like, wow, look at the size of this alligator he has in there! So, you know, what Animal Planet just edited out, they never talked about Al. They just talked about Ming coming out, you know what I mean? So there was a relationship between me and Al as well that people don't even know about. Those two [Ming and Al] used to get nose to nose and sort of interact as well. But Ming never got to see Shadow until that very day. When he saw Shadow, instantly, Shadow saw Ming and ran. And once he ran, it triggered off that instinct again, and Ming went to go after him. That's when I jumped in the middle and I took the fierce force of whatever Ming dished out that day.
APL: In that moment, after you jumped in the middle, were you able to realize how exactly Ming was coming at you? Did you realize he was about to bite, or did it happen too quickly to know what was going on?
Yates: Oh yeah, I knew everything. I was actually conscious of everything that was going on. The only thing that I wasn't conscious of was how it was going to turn out. Once he had my leg in his mouth — and you're talking 3, 4, 5 minutes with my leg in his mouth — at that point, another the element of feeling that kicked in was, "How do I get my leg out of his mouth?" So that's where my concentration went. What came to me was the instinct not to confuse Ming, and just tell him basically what he had been nurtured on, which was "No!" and enforce that. So, once he let my leg go, I told him to go into the bathroom, and that's the way I was able to diffuse that situation. Him letting go of my leg, I think, is a remarkable thing, because when a big cat grabs a person, it's almost impossible to get your leg, arm, neck, out of his mouth.
APL: What kind of state were you in when your brother came in, and how long did it take you to recover from the injury?
Yates: I recovered instantly. I had a big gash, a big hole in my leg, but my injury didn't really come from Ming, and neither was it really a physical injury. I wasn't ever really put into a situation where I had to recover from the injury physically. What I had to recover from was the lack of understanding from the general public. So that's where most of the harm came into play. But physically, I was ok.
APL: Well, let's move on to your future plans. In the episode, you mention several predators — lions, hyenas, bears, jaguars — that you'd like to keep in Nevada. Why so many predators? Is there something about those types of animals that particularly attracts you?
Yates: No, it's just that I... I love all animals, from animals ... The reason that I made so much a focus point on these predatory animals is because they're misunderstood. More people are fascinated by these predatory animals, and there is a person like me who can come along and give people a better understanding, not just because it's cool to have a tiger or it's beautiful to have a tiger. You have a person who can say that there should be more educational programs, training courses and so forth for people that would love to have these animals but don't know the proper way to take care of them. Also, there are maybe 80 percent of predatory animal species who are endangered, from the African cave dog to the Siberian tiger. You have three tiger subspecies that are already extinct, and the others are critically endangered. People are more afraid of predatory animals than other animals, so now you have poaching and so forth. So that's why my issue is in trying to protect these predatory animals, but all animals, generally speaking.
APL: Let's go back for a moment to the alligator, Al. Did Ming and Al interact?
Yates: When I bought Al, he was a hatchling, and his whole dependence was on the individual who feeds him. Even when you walk through the door you hear this, gnack, gnack, gnack sound, right? So what I had to do was watch him and start to understand the animal. Now, an alligator is not too hard to understand, a brain about the size of a dime. So, instead of trying to bond with him on the level that I would bond with any warm-blooded creature, I started to get into programming him, and this came through vibrations. So feeding time you would have two vibrations, two taps on his tank. And when it was time to clean his tank, it was three taps. So, as he started to age and get up in size, this program I created with him became much easier, and now you have this big alligator in the middle of the floor. But then you had Ming, who was very curious and would go straight up to the tank. Now, when they both got tired of each other, either Ming would walk away or Al would give him a big hissing sound and he'd go the opposite way. But it was very interesting watching the two predatory animals from completely opposite sides of the coin interact, and these are some of the things that took place inside of this apartment.