Is the 'Bad Vegan' Dog Immortality Cult Real?

In Netflix's latest true-crime docuseries, a raw vegan restaurateur is convinced that her rescue pitbull Leon could live forever.

bad vegan, sarma melngailis, leon
Netflix

There aren’t many pet owners on the planet who wouldn’t wish that their animal buddy would live forever, but no amount of bargaining with a higher power, TikTok followers, or money will make it so. But in one of the more bizarre details in Netflix’s latest wild true-crime docuseries Bad Vegan from Tiger King producer and Fyre director Chris Smith, former New York City raw vegan restaurateur Sarma Melngailis, nicknamed the “vegan Bernie Madoff,” becomes convinced that her beloved rescue pitbull Leon would be immortal if she kept siphoning money from her savings and restaurant earnings to her con-artist husband Shane Fox, real name Anthony Strangis, in order to please a shadowy deity. It’s even something that Netflix itself has latched onto as marketing for the series, creating a website and Instagram for a fictional New Age-y company Perpetual Pup promising a “revolutionary, non-scientific, patent-pending process rooted in trust and love in the Universe” that will keep your pets from death’s door.

In phone calls throughout the four-part docuseries, Strangis—who Melgnailis met via Twitter as mutuals with Alec Baldwin, who frequented her trendy spot Pure Food and Wine around 2010—rants about evil forces in the world and a mysterious body he consults in California called “the family” who issue “tests” to the righteous in the form of wire transfers to keep the demons at bay, and if Melngailis passed the financial hurdles to the tune of several million dollars, “the family” would make all of her dreams come true, including keeping Leon alive forever. Of course, that didn’t happen: Strangis took Melngailis and Leon on the lam, as Pure Food and Wine employees were striking demanding their wages, for 10 months until being traced to a hotel in the kitchsy resort town of ​​Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near Dollywood, through a Domino’s pizza delivery. Both were both arrested and charged with theft and tax evasion totaling nearly $2 million.

The story of Melngailis’ downfall—from the owner of a high-end raw vegan restaurant, famous for its zucchini lasagna, and juice bar One Lucky Duck to serving a five-month sentence in Rikers—is zany and troubling, largely because of the manipulation Strangis leveraged into wire transfers that he, surprise, sunk into casinos and not as offerings to “the family” to keep Leon alive and her businesses successful. In Bad Vegan, information about the ambiguously Christian entity that Strangis allegedly subscribed to is frustratingly vague, considering how batty and insistent his claims were. Was Strangis part of a real cult?

bad vegan
Netflix

The short answer is no, probably not. The longer answer involves lots of speculation and educated guessing based on Bad Vegan’s characterization of Strangis as a compulsive liar and narcissist who could charm his way into anything he wanted. It seems most likely that Strangis made up his own dogma influenced by very real cults of the ‘60s and ‘70s: The Family, which still exists today as a Christian missionary group The Family International, and The Source Family. Maybe you’ve heard of the former, in which Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan spent their childhoods. In 2019, Netflix released a five-part docuseries called The Family that shed light on the doomsday cult founded by David Berg outside of Los Angeles that believed in the coming of an anti-Christ and authoritarian one world government that would be taken down by the second coming, encouraged disturbing evangelism called “flirty fishing” that used sex as a conversion tactic and criminal sexual acts with minors on its commune, and its political influence in the U.S. government.

The Source Family, on the other hand, has a more interesting connection to Strangis’ version of “the family,” chiefly via The Source, its vegan restaurant on the Sunset Strip established in 1969 that served dishes called the “Aware Salad” and “Magic Mushroom” and where The Source Family’s in-house band, Ya Ho Wha 13, recorded nearly 60 albums. Celebrities like John Lennon, Marlon Brando, and Warren Beatty ate there and it was featured as a goof in Annie Hall, where Woody Allen orders alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast. Though the group of counterculture Aquarians (literally, members legally changed their last name to Aquarian) were more benign with their activities, believing in clean eating and meditation, they were no doubt a cult. If you wanted to eat at The Source, you were expected to be wearing white. At the center of it all was its founder donning a long white beard, a guy named Jim Baker, who changed his name to Father Yod, with a backstory that seems impossible. (An ex-Marine, jiu-jitsu master, possible murder, perhaps bank robber turned spiritualist? C’mon.) This is all explored in the 2012 documentary The Source Family.

Neither of these cults subscribed to the idea of Earthen immortality, but it’s easy to see how Strangis could make that leap in order to convince a woman who has blogged thousands of words about adopting her pet. Though Leon hasn’t achieved immortality, he is still alive—Melngailis posts about his exploits on Instagram @oneluckyrescuedog.

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Leanne Butkovic is a senior entertainment editor at Thrillist.