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
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.