A 425-pound tiger living in a Harlem apartment? Yes, it happened

So, did Tiger Man enjoy “Tiger King?”

“I was turned off by it,” said Antoine Yates, who became known as New York City’s Tiger Man long before the wild popularity of Netflix’s documentary miniseries. “It just shows how ignorant these so-called exotic animal lovers can be.”

Yates also got momentarily famous for keeping a full-grown tiger, this one named Ming. But rather than the more rural settings favoured by Joe Exotic and the show’s other big-cat enthusiasts, he kept Ming in his Harlem apartment, for more than two years.

In 2001, Yates, then a 31-year-old construction worker, brought the eight-week-old cub to his sprawling home in a Harlem housing project.

Ming quickly went from bottle feeding to consuming 20 pounds of chicken thighs a day, which Yates would heft home each morning from a local supermarket. And in less than three years, the Siberian-Bengal mix grew into a 425-pound behemoth.

Authorities eventually discovered Ming in 2003. They subdued and removed him, along with a 5-foot-long alligator named Al that Yates kept in a fibreglass tank in the apartment.

Both animals were relocated to an Ohio sanctuary, where Ming died from natural causes in February 2019. Yates was arrested and served a brief stint in jail for illegally keeping an animal.

I was a reporter on The New York Times metro desk when the story was playing out, a time when the city seemed a bit wilder.

Nevertheless, even seasoned editors and reporters were flabbergasted that a man had kept a tiger in his public housing apartment in such a dense urban setting.

City authorities were also puzzled as to how the presence of a tiger in Apartment 5E of the Drew Hamilton public housing complex had remained an open secret among some neighbours. Ming certainly escaped the notice of city Housing Authority officials who said they fielded complaints from neighbours about urine smells from Yates’ apartment, but never any mention of a tiger.

Nor did they know about the other exotic animals Yates might have kept in the apartment.

At the time, neighbours claimed to reporters and to law enforcement officials that Yates had bear cubs, Rottweilers, rabbits, hyenas, monkeys, snakes, a llama, a tarantula and even a young lion.

Asked about this recently, Yates, who lives with his mother in the Philadelphia area, would not elaborate past saying, “I did have a lot of exotics in there.”

He gamely revealed the rest of the story, though, from his pet-keeping obsessions that began at age 3 with teddy bear hamsters to later escapades with more exotic critters.

He said he bought Ming — the name came from Yates’ interest in the Chinese dynasty — from an exotic animal breeder for “a couple thousand.”

The tiger became central to a utopian plan for an animal sanctuary that he envisioned as “a new concept of animals living together,” Yates said in a phone interview.

He built a sandbox in Ming’s room and used pieces of carpeting and dolls as part of a regimen of play and training. This included hide-and-seek with items sprayed with cologne, and freezing slabs of liver that Ming would play with as they melted, “things to stimulate his mind,” Yates said.

“I didn’t want to domesticate him,” he added. “I did a lot of enrichment with him to feed his instinct. I was like a drill sergeant.”

Ming would loll around with Yates as he read or watched videos.

At the time, Yates variously called Ming his best friend, a brother figure and “my calling in life.”

“Consciously I knew I had a tiger, but the physical interaction and bonding, it was so natural,” he said in the interview. “It wasn’t no different than raising a monkey or a snake.”

He had put a down payment on a parcel north of New York City, he recalled, to create a haven of harmonious interaction between animals and people — a “Garden of Eden,” was how he described it at the time.

“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.”

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The interruption came in October 2003, after Yates took in an abandoned kitten he named Shadow. One day, Ming lunged at Shadow and gashed Yates in the leg as he tried to intervene.

Yates went to Harlem Hospital, claiming he had been attacked by a pit bull. Because of the size of the bite radius, doctors were skeptical. Authorities were alerted and police arrived at Yates’ building. They were able to stick a miniature camera into the apartment to confirm that, yes, there really was a tiger inside.

In a commando-style operation, an officer rappelling down the building’s exterior was able to shoot a tranquilizer dart through a window to subdue Ming, who was then carried out on a tarp to a truck by a half-dozen responders.

Police were alerted that Yates had then gone to a Philadelphia hospital. He was arrested there and the story became front-page news, with Yates becoming known in the tabloids as “Tiger Man.”

He wound up pleading guilty to reckless endangerment and possessing a wild animal.

As part of the plea, prosecutors dropped charges against Yates’ mother, Martha, then 68, who had been charged with endangering the welfare of eight young relatives and foster children by raising them for a period in the apartment while Ming was present.

“For a tiger to go unnoticed for that long, that couldn’t happen today,” recalled Jeremy Saland, the prosecuting attorney in the case. “Today, someone in the hallway would record it roaring, and it would be all over Instagram or Twitter.”

Saland, now a criminal lawyer in Manhattan, said during pretrial preparations that he had tried unsuccessfully to get Ming housed at the Bronx Zoo so he could be presented as evidence and visited by jurors.

Yates served three months on Rikers Island, after which he was put on probation for five years and barred from having animals.

He still considers the prosecution a sham. Ming had been declawed, he said, and the children were only in the apartment while Ming was a smaller cat, and were never in danger.

“Most of the time it was just me there, no family, no friends, no girlfriends,” he said. “I never put the public or another soul in harm’s way. I’m not a hard-core criminal. I’m just a person with a passion for animals.”

Ming’s cremated remains were interred a year ago at the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Westchester County. The stone monument — “Ming, Tiger of Harlem” — lies about 17 miles north of the apartment of his pent-up childhood.

Yates said he plans to visit the grave, and has not given up on his dream of creating a utopian sanctuary.

“I’ll always love animals till I leave this planet — I’m not going to just give up because of the judicial system,” he said. “I loved the experience. I would do it again.”

TORONTO STAR