It may be one of Myrtle Beach's best kept secrets – the world's largest cat, which spends most of the year at the Myrtle Beach Safari preserve off Highway 707 in Socastee.
It's a combination of a lion and a tiger, weighing in at more than 900 pounds, and standing 11 feet tall.
Doc Antle is the director of Myrtle Beach Safari, who has been working with wildlife for more than thirty years. He knows he can't afford to make any mistakes when it comes to handling the wild cats.
“If the animal is not being kept by a professional team of trainers who are always there in a team, the animal's ability to be trustworthy is very small,” Antle said.
He and his team of trainers have a sound and proven system in place. They bring thousands of tourists onto the preserve every year, where they can interact up close and personal with the exotic creatures.
But incidents, like the most recent deadly lion mauling in California, raise questions among the wildlife experts about the safety of hands-on tours like Antle's.
He says he wasn't surprised to hear about the woman who was killed, but while many others are quick to blame the animals' unpredictable nature, he says the humans are to blame.
“Human error is the great mistake, same thing that happens in a lot of prisons,” he said. “Somebody doesn't pay attention to the dramatic situation.”
Antle is quick to point out that to be properly trained in dealing with big cats, it takes more than a decade.
His employees start out as interns and work with the animals as babies for years before they're allowed to interact with the fully grown ones. On top of that, his staff of more than twenty trainers all live on the preserve, and interact with the animals on a daily basis.
“People always work in teams — usually four or five people are out at a time, anytime there's any wildlife out.”
Antle explained that even the most deadly creatures respond differently to big groups of animals or humans. One human could more easily fall prey, while a group is more intimidating to the big cats.
When they aren't out in the open, the animals are caged in by 18 foot tall fences.
Doc's reputation for safety and professionalism extends around the world, with his animals starring in movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
Despite recent fears, he knows it won't stop people from coming to share the wildlife experience.
“To see those little baby tigers up close, and have them in your lap, and interact with them — that's a bucket list fulfilling opportunity.”
Myrtle Beach Safari opens its 2013 tourist season Saturday, March 16. Tours cost $239 per person, and a portion of the fee goes to animal rescue programs. To learn more or book a tour, click here.