Crime

Real Tarzann’s online stardom clouded by selling snakes, ‘exploiting’ chimps, and lawsuits

The legal adventures of a social media celebrity who has dubbed himself Real Tarzann might just be beginning.

Michael Holston, an exotic animal handler who has attracted 5.8 million followers on Instagram but also been criticized by other experts for his treatment of wildlife, remained behind bars Wednesday, five days after his arrest for allegedly attacking another Instagram personality. Turns out, he’s also facing possible jail time for an earlier, undisclosed arrest — for illegally selling iguanas and snakes he claimed to have rescued.

And that’s not all.

Holston is also facing a lawsuit from Tesoe, a popular Miami graffiti artist whose art is visible across Wynwood. He says that Holston stiffed him of thousands of dollars when he painted a huge graffiti-style “Tarzann” mural at the social media figure’s home.

“Mr. Holston’s recent alleged conduct is just the latest example of his lack of respect for other members of our community,” said Allison Freidin, Tesoe’s attorney. “My client will continue to fight for justice while Holston addresses these separate criminal charges.”

Holston, 25, is charged with multiple counts of battery.

His defense attorney, Alan Soven, said the fight that landed Holston in jail on Friday night stemmed from a “macho thing” between two former friends. Police said Holston instigated the fight with Jason Leon over “an argument they had over social media.”

“I don’t know what precipitated this thing, but I think at the end of the day, it’s going to wash away,” Soven said.

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Jason Leon, a python hunter and big-cat cat handler, was allegedly attacked by his former friend, Michael “The Real Tarzann” Holston. Both are social-media personalities. - Instagram

Holston’s legal troubles threaten to derail a rising career propelled by social media and often-controversial interactions with animals around the world. Beyond the huge Instragram audience, he boasts 510,000 YouTube subscribers and 41,600 followers on Twitter.

His Instagram videos show him preening on the backs of big cats, snuggling with a koala and — sans shirt — triumphantly hoisting two large monitor lizards in the air.

But it’s been clips of him cavorting with primates that have caused the most backlash. The videos depict chimps riding Holston’s back, using an electric razor on Holston’s face, and even skateboarding with him while dressed like a little human.

Earlier this year, the foundation of legendary primate expert and advocate Jane Goodall took Holston to task for his videos with a chimp named Limbani, saying the influencer “promotes mishandling and inappropriate captive care” of the animal. The foundation says chimps are social animals, and Limbani’s isolation in the videos “is certainly harmful to the long term psychological and physical needs of this young chimpanzee.”

Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill, South Florida’s most famous wildlife expert, said Holston does “stupid things” with animals and gives out inaccurate information while masquerading as a conservationist.

“He’s exploiting animals to elevate his social media status,” Magill said. “It’s all about the followers. It disgusts me.”

Holston and his mother moved from Atlanta to South Florida, where he worked at Underground Reptiles in Deerfield Beach.

“When he was 16 he was working in a pet store and watching a YouTube show I had about reptiles,” said Ryan Gittman, the store’s owner. “He drove to the store and camped out in the back. He said his dad died a few years ago and volunteered at the store and slept in his car.”

“This kid loves him some animals. He started working for me as a teen. We went to church together. He worked on my farm. Before anyone knew Michael Holston was going to be The Real Tarzann, he worked on the farm.”

About four years ago, Holston also began working informally with Zoological Wildlife Foundation, a private zoo in South Miami-Dade. The owner, Mario Tabraue, met Holston after the young man paid for some “encounters” with chimpanzees.

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Michael Holton, a social media celebrity, is an animal handler who has 5.8 million followers on Instagram. - Instagram

Later, Tabraue said, Holston volunteered to bring some reptiles to show 50 “chronically ill” children who were visiting the foundation.

“He helped me out with the children. I liked that about him,” Tabraue said.

As his social media fame grew, Holston was profiled in January 2018 by WSVN-7 news, after he claimed to have rescued 250 freezing iguanas.

But the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission claims Holston was not as altruistic as he seemed.

The TV report sparked a complaint to FWC, which called Holston. According to a police report, he claimed he was finding homes for the lizards. But Lt. William Stiffler, in his report, said Holston was actually selling the lizards. “It appeared the cold weather was used to assist in the capture of the lizards,” he wrote.

Under Florida law, you need an FWC license to sell reptiles. “Yes, I was selling them but I didn’t know I needed a license,” Holston allegedly told Stiffler when the lieutenant called him on Jan. 10, 2018.

Stiffler warned him to not sell without a license. One day later, FWC officers were called to a post office in Miramar after a “suspicious” package was “spontaneously moving.” Inside the box bound for Holston’s home, officers found a green iguana.

FWC later learned that Holston sold a type of snake known as a “Bat Eater” to a woman in Tennessee one week after he was warned, according to a police report.

The officers issued 11 misdemeanor citations to Holston, who agreed to enter a program for first-time offenders. But he flunked when he jet-setted off to Australia and failed to complete the program, which usually calls for community service, donations and watching videos about good behavior.

His then-lawyer, Scott Saul, said it took six months to convince prosecutors to put Holston back in the program. FWC officers, he said, unfairly believed Holston was selling the lizards for profit.

“He wasn’t. He was just charging the shipping fees,” Saul said. “They’re just assuming he’s some hustler from the hood.”

But after his arrest on Friday, Holston’s participation in the program was revoked, according to the court docket. The case remains open and pending.

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Bhagavan “Doc” Antle runs the Myrtle Beach Safari Zoo. - Myrtle Beach Safari Zoo

The fall of 2018 brought more legal woes. He was sued by Team Plugged, a Miami Beach “influencer” management company that had signed on to exclusively manage Holston.

The suit alleged that Holston, after getting a $20,000 signing bonus, locked the company out of his accounts and started doing business with William Morris Endeavors, or WME, a high-profile Beverly Hills talent management company. The suit was later settled out of court.

By early 2019, Holston’s fame was rising fast and he had left his job at Underground Reptiles. He rented a home at a wildlife compound owned by Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, a controversial wildlife advocate who runs Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina.

In January, Holston met with the graffiti artist, Tesoe, and offered him $20,000 for a series of murals at his home on the compound — and multiple “shout-outs” to the artist on his Instagram page. Holston later asked for an additional $5,000 worth of murals.

But according to Tesoe’s lawsuit, Holston never paid a dime on the deposit and even “became physically aggressive” toward the artist. Tesoe only completed a portion of the murals, and in March, sued Holston for breach of contract. The suit is ongoing. According to court documents, Holston denies the allegations and claims there was no legally binding contract.

The compound was also the site of the alleged attack on Leon, a social media personality and big cat handler who works for the Zoological Wildlife Foundation. (Leon is also famous for having once wrangled a 128-pound python.)

Leon and another man had driven down to the property at 6000 SW 118th Ave., to pick up three big-cat cubs for transport to the Myrtle Beach Safari. The Zoological Foundation often works with Myrtle Beach Safari, and the two organizations often exhibit each other’s animals.

As they were loading the van, Holston approached and began taunting him over their social media beef, according to a Miami-Dade police report.

During the argument, Holston punched Leon “on the head,” an arrest report said. When Leon’s friend, Hector Zaleya, a slight young man known as “Twinkie” stepped in, Holston punched him so hard the man’s tooth chipped, police said.

After Leon escaped to his car, Holston reportedly became so enraged that he got into the vehicle from the passenger side and kept punching him.

Tabraue, Leon’s boss at the Zoological Wildlife Foundation, said the cat handler may have fractured his elbow and injured his head. He is awaiting further medical tests.

“His behavior was totally uncalled for,” Tabraue said of Holston. “This should have never happened.”

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