Daily Express

Look­ing af­ter a baby jaguar was like hav­ing a new­born

Hav­ing swapped tiger cubs for other big cats in his new TV se­ries, zookeeper Giles Clark re­veals why he left Oz to run a UK sanc­tu­ary for en­dan­gered an­i­mals

- By Sadie Nicholas

AS dawn breaks over their spa­cious home in the Kent coun­try­side, Giles Clark and his new wife Kathryn are pre­par­ing for­mula milk for the fam­ily’s youngest mem­ber: two-week-old Maya. It is an early morn­ing rou­tine fa­mil­iar to mil­lions of bleary-eyed par­ents ex­cept that lit­tle Maya isn’t your av­er­age in­fant. She is a black jaguar cub who was taken in by Giles, an ac­claimed zookeeper, af­ter she was re­jected by her mother aged just a few days old.

“It’s just like hav­ing a new­born baby,” ad­mits Giles, a fa­ther of two. “I make the milk, ster­ilise the bot­tles, wipe her bot­tom. It’s a never-end­ing cy­cle and when she fi­nally goes to sleep I’m like, ‘Oh, I can re­lax for a sec­ond.’”

Giles, 40, es­ti­mates that he has hand-reared be­tween 70 and 80 tiger, lion and chee­tah cubs dur­ing his 20-year ca­reer but this is the first time that he has been hand­son with a baby jaguar.

The ten­der­ness he shows to­wards Maya is mes­meris­ing and their re­la­tion­ship is cap­tured in the new three-part BBC se­ries Big Cats About The House, which is as heart­warm­ing as it is alarm­ing.

It high­lights that a stag­ger­ing 80 per cent of the world’s big cat pop­u­la­tion is en­dan­gered and with­out the in­ter­ven­tion of ex­perts and con­ser­va­tion­ists such as Giles many species could be wiped out within a decade.

“We can’t al­low th­ese an­i­mals to dis­ap­pear and the pri­or­ity has got to be pro­tect­ing them in the wild,” he says.

Filmed last year the doc­u­men­tary charts Maya’s early life from the mo­ment Giles re­ceived a call for help from the wildlife park where she was born, suf­fer­ing se­ri­ous health prob­lems, and splash­ing around in a pool as she learns to swim.

With­out his 24-hour care Maya would have died within days. “In the past I mostly hand-reared sib­ling cubs to­gether but as a sin­gle­ton when­ever Maya was awake she wanted my un­di­vided at­ten­tion and brought a whole new set of chal­lenges and mis­chief.

“Jaguars are ar­bo­real, mean­ing their in­stinct is to climb and move about in the trees so she al­ways wanted to be up – high up – be it on book cases or my shoul­ders.”

The charm­ing footage shows Maya pro­gress­ing from baby to “toddler”, chew­ing books, slip­pers and cush­ions, drag­ging blan­kets and egg boxes around the house and play­fully but painfully nip­ping Giles’s daugh­ter’s chest.

OF course for Maya all th­ese mis­de­meanours had a pur­pose. “Ev­ery­thing she does is about learn­ing so even though it’s play­ful and cute it’s about her in­tu­itively de­vel­op­ing the skills that she would need to sur­vive in the wild,” Giles ex­plains.

I last spoke to Giles in 2014 when he ap­peared in an­other BBC doc­u­men­tary, Tigers About The House, which fol­lowed him as he raised two bois­ter­ous tiger cubs at his then home in Aus­tralia where he lived with his wife Kerri and their son Ky­nan, now 12.

Fast for­ward four years and much has changed in Giles’s life. For starters he has moved con­ti­nents again. Orig­i­nally from Mid­dle­sex he fell in love with an­i­mals when he did work ex­pe­ri­ence at a zoo in Hert­ford­shire as a teenager. Af­ter then work­ing in In­dia and Amer­ica he em­i­grated to Aus­tralia aged 21 to fur­ther his ca­reer.

For 13 years he headed up the tiger fa­cil­ity at Aus­tralia Zoo in Bris­bane which was owned by his good friend, Aus­tralian nat­u­ral­ist Steve Ir­win who was killed by a stingray barb in 2006.

He re­turned to the UK in June 2016 to take over as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Big Cat Sanc­tu­ary (BCS), a con­ser­va­tion char­ity in Smar­den, Kent.

“I felt as though my work was done at Aus­tralia Zoo and that my team were off and run­ning and didn’t need me any more, in the nicest sense,” Giles re­flects.

By then his mar­riage had also ended, al­beit am­i­ca­bly. He adds that his son Ky­nan “re­mains my world” with daily con­tact on Facetime and three get-to­geth­ers ei­ther in the UK or Aus­tralia ev­ery year.

“I was also con­scious that my mum who lives in Lon­don isn’t get­ting any younger so the tim­ing seemed right to make the move back to the UK.”

For­merly known as the Wildlife Her­itage Foun­da­tion, BCS has 40 acres and is home to 50 big cats which are cared for by five full-time keep­ers. Cru­cially it is not a zoo. In fact it is open to the pub­lic on only four days a year when vis­i­tors ar­rive in their thou­sands.

Pun­ters can also pay for VIP ex­pe­ri­ences, such as be­ing a ranger for a day, or an overnight sa­fari which in­cludes stay­ing in one of the lux­u­ri­ous lodges in the grounds. “As its name sug­gests it is a sanc­tu­ary for the an­i­mals,” Giles FEEL­ING FELINE: Giles grap­ples with jaguar cub Maya ex­plains. “But the ac­tiv­i­ties we do en­able us to cover our costs and also con­trib­ute re­sources and funds to vi­tal con­ser­va­tion projects in the wild around the world, which is also ex­tremely im­por­tant to our ethos here.”

Soon af­ter re­turn­ing to Eng­land, Giles met Kathryn, who is di­rec­tor of her fa­ther’s care home busi­ness, through a mu­tual friend. His daugh­ter Sam, 23, also lives with them and worked with him at BCS un­til re­cently.

So how did Kathryn feel about hav­ing big cats un­der their roof? “She ac­cepted very quickly that my work is a lit­tle un­con­ven­tional and there’s no telling what may hap­pen next,” he laughs. “She quickly fell in love with Maya too and it was a case of us all muck­ing in to make it work.

“I want to be a global cen­tre of ex­cel­lence here at BCS, not only for the way in which we look af­ter the an­i­mals that are here but also how we utilise that to sup­port real con­ser­va­tion ac­tion on the ground be­cause the clock is tick­ing,” he con­tin­ues, adding that he has big am­bi­tions for BCS.

They in­clude in­tro­duc­ing new ideas to help fur­ther im­prove the well­be­ing of the an­i­mals, most of which have ei­ther been res­cued from dire con­di­tions – in­clud­ing cir­cuses – or be­long to in­ter­na­tional breed­ing pro­grammes.

He also hopes to ex­pand the num­ber of cats at BCS where there are cur­rently 16 species in­clud­ing African lions, snow leop­ards, Su­ma­tran tigers, chee­tahs and lynx.

GILES will know within the next few weeks whether any of his fe­male snow leop­ards are preg­nant, hav­ing re­cently been al­lowed to frater­nise with the males. There are also plans to ex­pand the ed­u­ca­tional and VIP ex­pe­ri­ences at the sanc­tu­ary.

As for Maya, now aged eight months, she is thriv­ing in her own spe­cial en­clo­sure at BCS and weighs 35kg (5½ stone). By the time she is a fully grown two-yearold she will have gained an­other 20kg (3 stone).

“She won’t ever breed and is what we call an ambassador an­i­mal help­ing to raise in­cred­i­ble aware­ness of our work and wider projects,” Giles adds.

Soon af­ter Maya moved out last au­tumn Giles took in a chee­tah cub called Wil­low who is also now liv­ing at BCS. “I have been in­cred­i­bly for­tu­nate dur­ing my ca­reer to have so many cubs around my fam­ily and me but I would never ever con­done keep­ing th­ese an­i­mals as pets,” he con­tin­ues, his tone se­ri­ous.

“I in­ter­vene out of ne­ces­sity but even if they are hand-reared and you’ve had them in your house they are still wild an­i­mals and must be treated with the ut­most re­spect.

“As they get big­ger their needs can no longer be met at home and there is a health and safety risk for ev­ery­one too.

“For now at least I’m en­joy­ing a rest from all the chaos of rais­ing cubs at home un­til the next lit­tle one needs my help.” Big Cats About The House is on BBC Two to­mor­row at 8pm.

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 ?? Pic­tures: BBC ?? BONDS: Maya with a dog­gie friend; Giles and Kathryn on their wed­ding day in Bar­ba­dos last De­cem­ber
Pic­tures: BBC BONDS: Maya with a dog­gie friend; Giles and Kathryn on their wed­ding day in Bar­ba­dos last De­cem­ber

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