In Apartment 5E of a housing project in Harlem, there once lived a Siberian-Bengal tiger named Ming. He had his own bedroom, and was lovingly cared for by his owner, Antoine Yates. Ming was well known to residents of the Drew Hamilton Houses—it was hard to miss his roaring and the distinct smell of his urine—but he went undetected by authorities for three years. And when he was finally found out, his story captivated New Yorkers, who saw the urban tiger as emblematic of the wild, raucous nature of their city.
“It was a story that could only happen in New York City,” Jeremy Saland, who eventually prosecuted Yates for reckless endangerment, tells Corey Kilgannon of the New York Times.
In February, the 19-year-old tiger died at the Noah’s Lost Ark sanctuary in Ohio, where he had lived since being removed from Yates’ apartment in 2003. Ming suffered from kidney and heart failure, according to John Annese of the Daily News. Reports of the tiger’s death only came to light recently.
“He lived a really good life here,” Ellen Karnofel, the owner of the sanctuary, tells Annese. “He was able to run and play on the grounds. He had tiger friends. He had a swimming pool. He was able to experience the elements.”
It was a very different setting from the one in which Ming had been raised. Yates, a cab driver, purchased the tiger from a wild animal dealer “out west” when he was just 6 weeks old, as Gabrielle Fonrouge and Laura Italiano of the New York Post reported last year. Yates brought Ming back to his apartment and cared for him there, first bottle-feeding him, then spooning him pureed meat and finally lugging home 20 pounds of chicken parts each day to satiate his hunger. Yates also built Ming a sand pit in his bedroom.
Speaking with the Post, Yates said that the great predator was in fact very affectionate. “He would literally lay right across me and wouldn’t fall asleep unless his body was sprawled across mine,” he recalled.
Ming wasn’t the only animal Yates acquired. He also a baby alligator, which eventually grew to be nearly 6 feet long and lived apart from Ming in a fiberglass tank. Saland tells the Times’ Kilgannon that Yates temporarily kept a young lion in the apartment too.
But this illicit menagerie came to an end after Yates brought home a more traditional house pet: a rescued cat named Shadow. One day, Shadow escaped from his bedroom and made his way into Ming’s space. The tiger lunged at the smaller feline, and when Yates came between them, he was sliced by Ming’s fangs. At the hospital, Yates told doctors that he had been attacked by a pit bull, but they suspected a much larger animal was responsible.
When NYPD officers arrived at Yates’ apartment to investigate, they could hear growling. They then lowered a camera through a bedroom window and got a clear visual of Ming, who was relaxing on the floor. A dramatic extraction mission ensued, during which an officer had to rappel down the side of the apartment building and shoot a tranquilizer gun at Ming through the window.
“I hit him and he jumps up and he runs away and he runs up to the far wall of the bedroom and he turns around and he comes running back at the window at me,” officer Martin Duffy tells the Post. “He actually comes up and charges the window and breaks the window.”
The tranquilizer did, however, soon take effect, and Ming was carried out of the apartment on a gurney. Al the alligator was also sent to an out-of-state sanctuary.
Yates pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and served three months in Rikers Island. But it was perhaps the loss of his beloved big cat that proved the most devastating blow. ''I feel heartbroken,'' Yates told the New York Times back in 2003. “I miss him a lot. He's like my brother, my best friend, my only friend, really.”
Though his decision to hole up with a tiger in his New York apartment was certainly unusual, Yates is not alone in his efforts to acquire one of the animals. Today, more tigers exist in captivity in the United States than in the wild—and only 6 percent of those tigers live in zoos and other accredited facilities. The rest are privately owned. “In many jurisdictions, people can legally keep a tiger on their property without reporting it to local officials or neighbors,” according to the World Wildlife Fund, which calls this lack of oversight “a major threat to public safety.”
After reaching a respectable age for a captive tiger, Ming was cremated and buried at the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Westchester County, around 17 miles from the Harlem apartment that he once shared with Yates. The cemetery honored Ming with a “modest ceremony,” Kilgannon writes.
“I wanted to keep him very private because Ming was private,” Karnofel, the owner of Noah’s Lost Ark, tells Annese of the Daily News. "He had this big spectacle of when he was rescued and brought here. He deserved some peace.”