Simi’s story

January 28, 2016

By Charlotte Corney, Zoo Director, Isle of Wight Zoo

People often say “it must be really fun running a zoo”.  I certainly wouldn’t dispute that but there are many other objectives which could also aptly describe the range of emotions which go hand in hand with the task. At times of financial strain (which is, to be fair, most of the time!) it can be mentally exhausting finding ways to keep buoyant and then there are times when we lose animals we spend more time with, and love as much as our closest family and friends. So, keeping a perspective during tough periods is essential and maximising the joy of the ‘job’ is just as important.  When it comes to the latter, the feeling of providing a new home for an unwanted, confiscated or surplus animal is pretty hard to beat.

Eighteen months ago I was contacted by Matt Ford who runs Specialist Wildlife Services, a centre which re-homes exotic animals for the police, government departments, RSPCA and other NGO’s.  He alerted me to the plight of a female tiger called Simi who had been seized, on welfare grounds, from a travelling circus just outside Hamburg, Germany.  She was being held at a rescue centre in Belgium. Due to fighting, Simi had been separated from her sister, Julia, who was subsequently re-homed at a UK wildlife park. ‘Tango’, the ex-Esso tiger, went with her as he was also resident in Belgium and had bonded with Julia. The news of Simi’s situation came at a time when we were reeling from the loss of some of our beloved big cats due to age-related illnesses. We considered carefully our resources and soon were in a position to confirm that we could, indeed, offer Simi a lifelong home at the zoo.

Simi ‘stalked her way into our hearts’

At this point the process to import the tragic 8 year old tiger began. The wheels started turning…..very very slowly. We were soon hit with bureaucratic problems at every possible juncture. Despite Belgium being a rabies-free country and Simi having been living in isolation and given a clean bill of health, the UK authorities refused her permission to come to the UK without undergoing months of  unnecessary quarantine.  The overriding emotion at this time was one of utter frustration bordering on exasperation.  That was until September when Simi found herself the centre of a media circus when our MP, Andrew Turner, intervened and his enquiry as to why Simi’s journey was being so badly delayed was raised during Jeremy Corbyn’s debut appearance in Prime Minister’s Questions. David Cameron pledged to look into the case and we can only assume he did because weeks later we received the much awaited rabies waiver to facilitate Simi’s importation – HURRAH! The zoo team, myself included, were ecstatic! Over-joyed! Finally we would get to meet and befriend the tiger who had already earned her stripes and stalked her way into our hearts.

On 16 January Simi’s main carer to be (Caz) and I travelled to Belgium with Specialist Wilidife Services. We were accompanied on the trip by our marketing manager and official photographer, Karen, as well as the BBC and the Sun who were keen to cover the story of the ex-circus tiger who stole the show in the House of Commons.

We knew it was going to be an intense experience and we were not wrong. When we arrived at the centre we were greeted by Simi with the signature ‘chuffs’ tiger people know so well. She was indeed as pretty as her pictures suggested, we took great pleasure in the knowledge that ‘Simi was coming home’.  The Belgium team were kind, amicable and clearly very fond of her but also very grateful to us for committing to help with her long-term care– thus freeing up the facility for another needy individual.

Preparing for her new life

Caz went for a stroll and came back with a shopping list of animals (luckily she didn’t have a trolley!) which she implored me to offer homes to, amongst them, lynx, lions (one of whom had been seized from a garden in France) and snow leopards. I had, by this stage, already been seduced by ‘Darco’, an 18 year old male tiger recently rendered homeless when the miserable Croatian zoo he was living in was closed down.  He had lived for years by himself until arriving at the centre where he met his next door neighbour, Simi.  The two were so sweet together, like an old married couple already.

At 6am on a chilly Sunday morning, Simi, motivated by a deceased, dangling duck, took the few steps into her travelling crate which were to be the first towards her new life on UK soil. As she disappeared from sight, being carried into the darkness of the new day, with human and tiger breath mixing and billowing out as a final visual fanfare, I made the mistake of glancing back to Darco. I will never forget his face. His companion was leaving.  For good.

I felt both elated to be starting the return trip with Simi safely loaded but, simultaneously, I felt sick to the stomach that we were leaving him behind.

Simi travelled well, unsurprisingly as a veteran circus animal. We chatted in the van about her, what we have learned from her carers, and how we planned to settle her at the zoo. We had been informed that electric cattle prods and sticks had been used to train her in the circus. When she had arrived in Belgium she had been afraid of brooms. We didn’t discuss what we’d like to do to those ignorant individuals who had inflicted such trauma on one of the worlds’ finest animals, we didn’t have to, we knew what each other was thinking…

Stepping into a new world

By some twist of fate we managed to catch an earlier ferry back to the Island which gave us the gift of a few moments of fading light by which to off-load Simi into her sleeping quarters. The zoo team were, naturally, buzzing with excitement to catch a glimpse of the infamous tiger but soon everyone made tracks home so she could enjoy a welcome meal and some peace and quiet.

The next morning tiger themed presents were strategically placed in her outdoor environment, close enough to the sliding door to catch her attention, not too close to scare her from coming out to investigate. As it happened the joy of feeling lush green grass beneath her padded paws was all it took for her to step out into the enclosure.  In no time she was filing her ‘nails’ on tree stumps and meeting her curious next door neighbours, Lola an ex-circus tiger from France, and Zena and Zia (our one-eyed white tiger and her sister).

Over the next few days Simi revealed more and more of her character and by the fourth day we knew she loved to cake herself in mud and much preferred red meat to white. She also already recognized Caz and had become very pally with Lola.

I felt relieved for Simi, privileged to have her in our care, and inspired to get through any challenges to make right some of what we humans had done wrong.

But I didn’t have to glance far in my mind to see the soulful, stripy face of Darco looking back at me, looking at him, looking at her.

. . .


The abuse must stop

So long as circuses, bad zoos and illegal ownership of these highly endangered and dangerous big cats continue, I will not sleep easy with the scale of the problem weighing heavily on my conscience. But for now Simi is our priority, along with the other animals we have direct responsibility for. That’s not to say that I’m not looking into Darco’s case though…  Of course I am!

You may be interested to know that there are currently around 1000 travelling circuses in operation throughout Europe, not all use wild animals in shows. Some EU member states have opted to ban the use of exotic and/or domestic animals but in the UK it is still LEGAL to have performing wild animals, including big cats, in circuses. Worldwide some 23 countries have put their own restrictions in place. In 2012 the former coalition government issued a draft bill to ban the use of wild animals in circuses but four years later there is no sign of any UK-wide legislation to support that objective.

So, while Tim Peake lives, sci-fi like in the International Space Station, back on planet Earth tigers are still jumping through hoops for human entertainment. It seems that while we’ve been making giant leaps for mankind we’ve taking backward steps for animal-kind. It doesn’t take much to vote for a ban to this archaic practice – does it? We have some catching up to do. You can help by writing to your local councilor to express your views if your council have allowed circuses with animals access to land, you can report any suspected incidents of bad welfare in circuses here or abroad and you can raise awareness amongst family and friends. Perhaps then tigers with a story like Simi’s will not exist.

If you would like to help us care for Simi

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Thank you for reading Simi’s story.

Charlotte Corney
Isle of Wight Zoo

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Simi’s media coverage

Sun article about Simi »

BBC Inside Out programme about Simi »