Monday, January 18th, 2016
Driving along a seemingly normal Oxfordshire country lane, you would have no idea that just a couple of fields away a collection of magnificent, intelligent wild animals were being imprisoned and trained to provide entertainment through films, TV adverts and circus-style performances. Amazing Animals headquarters – Heythrop Zoological Gardens, opens its usually closed doors to the public on a limited number of days each year. Taking the rare opportunity to see behind the scenes of a company providing animals for the media industry, we visited their open day on September 13th 2015.
As we waited apprehensively amongst a crowd of other visitors at the entrance to the zoo, two members of staff demonstrated the first of many examples of animal exploitation we were to see during the day. Each carried a squirrel monkey, wearing harnesses and leads, into the crowd. With no welfare or safety advice given, the monkeys were placed onto the shoulders of adults and children alike. This was not in the context of any kind of educational talk, nor did the zoo staff attempt to justify the use of the monkeys in this way; entertaining the waiting visitors was clearly the priority – openly and shamelessly.
On entering the zoo itself, my first impression was that it was largely similar to most UK zoos in appearance, but on a smaller scale. Animals ranged from wolves and foxes, to hippos, penguins and bears.
As commonly seen in captive wild animals, stereotypical (stress-induced) behaviour was observed in a number of those kept at the zoo. Wolves, a lone hyena, hippos, tigers, and meerkats were all viewed pacing repeatedly up and down the sides of their enclosures.
Naturally highly social animals such as the hyena and giraffe were held without another of their own species, denying them the opportunity to carry out many of their innate behaviours. In the wild, the spotted hyena would live within a large group of up to 80 individuals, with a territory size of over 1,000km. Captivity could never replicate their natural lives, and it is difficult to imagine how lonely this particular hyena living in solitary confinement must have felt.
Of all the animals we saw, the tigers – in particular the white tiger, appeared the most distressed. The white tiger paced back and forth repeatedly in front of a window in the side of the enclosure which visitors crowded around.
After viewing all of the enclosures, we made our way to the first “show” of the day, called “Nature or Nurture?” Inside a packed marquee various wild animals were brought out onto the stage and made to perform tricks for the audience. Sensitive animals including a sloth, raccoon, skunk, penguin, macaque and python were subjected to the bright lights and loud music of the display.
Next, we visited the “studio”; a large barn containing a caged-off section and rows of tiered theatre-like seating, built specifically for training and filming animals for clients.
The first big cat paraded into the studio was a black leopard. The leopard sat and looked out at the audience, while a commentator spoke about the type of “work” the cat was used for – such as tv adverts.
Next two tigers were brought out by Jim Clubb,the owner of Amazing Animals, and made to move around the enclosed studio space, jumping from podiums, roaring on command etc. One tiger in particular appeared quite stressed with their ears flat back and making a lot of noise. The “trainer” used long sticks to order the cats around, pointing and hitting them together behind the animals. Jim then brought two male lions.
While I know that watching wild animals being made to perform is always difficult, I was still overwhelmed by the sadness of seeing such huge, powerful, sentient beings oppressed to the point of submission by a human who seemed so proud of what he had done. These magnificent animals could have maimed the trainers in a heartbeat, but through whatever method, they had been forced to submit and obey commands.
Again, there was no attempt to provide any educational information about the animals themselves, their biology or conservation. This show was purely about how the animals were trained for and used in the entertainment industry to make money for the owners of Amazing Animals.
Disgusted by the performances, we made our way to leave the zoo, but stopped when we saw a desperately sad sight of a cockatoo imprisoned in a small outdoor cage – so small it wasn’t even deserving of being called an aviary. There was no shelter, and no enrichment to speak of other than a perch. The bird seemed to want to interact with us, and squawked out “Hello Bimbo!” which we assumed was their name. Upsetting as it was to see yet another highly social animal who would naturally be busy foraging, travelling, or roosting quietly within a large flock, deprived of companionship and freedom, we knew that documenting their suffering was important. After taking our final photos, and hoping that the cage wasn’t Bimbo’s permanent year-round residence, we made our exit.
Back at home, reflecting on the investigation, I hope that the photos and footage of the wild animals so clearly being exploited for profit will discourage both individuals and companies from working with Amazing Animals, or any other animal entertainment business. The contrast between the daily lives of these captive animals with how they would naturally live in their wild homes should be proof enough that animals and the entertainment industry do not mix.
Below are photos of just some of the things we uncovered at Amazing Animals.