Tuesday, October 13th, 2009
“We skinned it. Cut the head off. … Shoved it in a big hole”
Acting on a tip-off that Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, near Bristol, was running a breeding programme with owner of the the Great British Circus, a CAPS investigator secured a job at the zoo to find out more.
In June, amongst a fanfare of publicity, the zoo received two female Bengal tigers, Kushkja and Tira. They were followed shortly after by a male named Tanvir.
No media reports mentioned where the animals may have come from and all that zoo keepers would tell the public was that they came from “up north, from a private collection”.
It didn’t take long for our investigator, ‘Sarah’ (not her real name), to uncover the truth. Keepers were well aware that the tigers, along with the zoo’s camels, were from the owner of the Great British Circus on breeding loan, with offspring to be returned to him. They were, however, under strict orders not to tell anyone.
The zoo’s owner Anthony Bush had already told Sarah the tigers were from the circus but when she asked him this again later on he said: “You don’t want to know where they came from. … I don’t want to burden you with information that isn’t necessary. … All I’m telling anybody, BIAZA, anyone, is that they came from a private collection.”
BIAZA is the trade body for zoos in the UK, which claims to represent “the best zoos and aquariums in Britain and Ireland”.
Tira was already heavily pregnant when sent to the zoo and gave birth in late July. Three cubs were stillborn and a fourth, named Tumkur, was removed to be hand-reared by keepers.
Six weeks after arriving, Tira died. The zoo claimed she had died from Feline Infectious Peritonitis, resulting in organ failure, but as we were to discover, a proper cause of death could not be confirmed.
Just 12 days after the death of his mother, the cub Tumkur also died.
Not wanting the breeding programme to be disrupted, the zoo took delivery of a third tiger in August, a male called Khan who was brought in to mate with Kushkja.
Unless you saw the local press coverage of the death of Tira and her cubs you probably wouldn’t know about this sad saga. The zoo removed all mention of the animals from it’s website, despite the coverage it gave to them arriving, the hand-rearing of Tumkur and the webcams that had initially been installed in both Tira’s enclosure and in the room where Tumkur was bottle-fed every hour. It is as if they had never existed.
All of this may provide an interesting insight into life and death in a zoo but the most shocking was yet to come in conversations with the zoo’s education officer, Catherine Tisdall. She is a qualified vet who, although no longer practicing, keeps her hand in with cutting up any animals the zoo wants to avoid the costs of sending to the Veterinary Laboratory Agency (VLA). This was the case with Tira.
Tisdall told our investigator Sarah that she did an examination of Tira, although admitting that she did not take samples for pathological study: “All I could do was look at it and say what I thought.” As such, this was not a proper post mortem: it could not confirm why she died, whether it was a infection, contagious disease or management problem.
Tira then suffered the indignity of having her head and paws cut off. According to Tisdall the tigers’ ‘owner’ wanted them back, although Sarah later came across the gruesome discovery of Tira’s head in a freezer.
Her skin is apparently to be hung from the ceiling of the staff meeting room.
Tisdall even admitted that burying the body on the zoo premises was illegal as it should have been sent for incineration. Presumably too many questions would be asked about why a tiger had no skin, head or paws. Implicating the zoo’s vet in this shambles, Tisdall said: “I spoke to … the vet and she said ‘are you pretending you didn’t hear the word ‘buried’?” When asked whether the vet knew the tiger was buried at the zoo, Tisdall replied: “Yeah. We both turned our eye, you turn a blind eye to a lot of things. I’m pretending that I didn’t hear ‘buried’. We would have had to pay to dispose of it as the VLA would have burned it ”. Asked where Tira was buried, the short reply was: “Shoved it in a big hole I think.”
Admitting that “I should have taken samples of the liver in hindsight” to try and confirm why Tira died, the education officer mentioned that the zoo owner offered to exhume the body. Tisdall’s response was: “I imagine it took quite a lot of effort to bury it, so no, it’s alright. I don’t know where it is. I presume it’s big enough so Barney [the zoo owner’s dog] won’t dig it up.”
Anthony Bush gave an interesting insight to the camels at the zoo, who also came from the circus and were to be trained. He explained how “a little girl called Helyne”, co-owner of the circus, is an “absolute master” of the camels and with Martin (Lacey, circus owner) trained tigers. Bush had great advice for anyone wanting to train the male camel at the zoo: “You carry a little stick with you and threaten him with it”.
Our investigation raised many other concerns which we will report on this website when we can. All of our evidence is being made available to the relevant authorities, with calls for them to investigate fully.