Before Netflix’s “Tiger King,” that follows a white trash gay, drug-addicted, narcissistic zoo owner from Oklahoma known as Joe Exotic, his ally Doc Antle, an exotic animal zoo and sex cult owner, and his arch nemesis Carole Baskin, a “sanctuary” owner, and the unfolding of their melodrama and crimes, a Black man once reigned as the “tiger king” in a New York City Housing Authority complex.
Antoine Yates, a 31-year old cab driver from Harlem, New York, purchased Ming, an 8-week old male Bengal-Siberian hybrid tiger from the BEARCAT Hollow Animal Park in Racine, Minnesota in April 2000. Yates lived in a five-bedroom apartment in the Drew Hamilton Houses on West 141st Street with Ming. On September 30, 2003, Antoine Yates admitted himself to Harlem Hospital for what he described as a bite on the leg from a pitbull dog. Medical personnel from Harlem Hospital were suspicious of Yates’ story, attributing his bites to an animal with a huger jaw than one of a pitbull. It was later found that Antoine was bit as he tried to protect a cat from Ming’s attack.
Yates checked out of Harlem Hospital on October 3rd, and the investigation started as the New York Police Department was anonymously tipped off about Yates’ potentially housing an exotic animal. A day later, officers dramatically raided Yates’ apartment to hear the roars and see the enormous face of a 2-year old 350-pound Ming. A police sniper rappelled the side of the building to fire tranquilizer darts at Ming through a fifth-floor window of apartment 5E. Once inside Yates’ apartment, officers found a 5-foot long alligator roaming.
Ming was subdued as police officers struggled to get him down the NYCHA elevator. By the next day, Ming was sent to the Noah’s Lost Ark Animal Sanctuary in Berlin Center, Ohio and met with journalists trying to break the story.
Antoine Yates faced seven years on reckless endangerment charges. His mother, Martha Yates, also faced charges for endangering the welfare of a child she was babysitting. In 2004, Martha and Antoine reached plea agreements, which granted Antoine five years’ probation and six months of jail time. Martha’s charges were reduced to disorderly conduct and no time served.
Antoine expressed the sorrow that came with the raid of his Harlem apartment that resulted in the loss of Ming and his personal life:
”I feel hurt, torn up,” he said. ”I have lost everything: my house, the only friend I had — Ming — and I lost my honor, so that my mother could be free.”
Antoine has maintained that he shared a bond with Ming, as he fed him 20 pounds chicken parts daily, built him a sandpit and even shared his bed with him. Animal advocates and city officials condemned the ownership of big cats as pets:
Ellen Whitehouse, who runs the sanctuary where the tiger is now being kept, says all but one of the 22 tigers at her sanctuary were kept as pets, including one who was kept chained in a basement.
“There are a lot of people out there that think they can be tamed,” she said. “And they can’t. They are wild animals and wild animals can’t be tamed.”
Housing authority spokesman Howard Marder also condemned it:
“It’s under investigation,” spokesman Howard Marder said. “We were incredulous to learn that someone residing in public housing could have such disregard for the safety of his neighbors. … It’s not to be tolerated.”
Friends of Antoine supported him and lauded him as someone who deeply cared for Ming:
Jerome Applewhite, 43, who lives on the 18th floor, first encountered Ming about three years ago, when he stopped at the apartment for a visit and saw Mr. Yates sitting with the tiger cub cradled in his arms.”
He was feeding it with a bottle,” Mr. Applewhite said. ”He cared for his pets.”
Some even suggested he treated Ming better than those at the Bronx Zoo:
Darryl Windwood, a childhood friend of Mr. Yates, said any punishment seemed excessive. ”He was unjustly done,” said Mr. Windwood. ”He wasn’t being cruel to his tiger. The tiger was healthier than some animals at the Bronx Zoo.”
In February 2019, Ming reportedly had a harmonious ceremony with his cremated remains sent to Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Westchester County, with a beautiful memoriam.
Antoine Yates and Ming’s story is one that has become city lore, a story that doesn’t seem odd or an anomaly in a city such as New York.
Rest in peace, Ming and much peace to Antoine Yates.