Giles Clark first took a tiger cub home when he was 16. Two decades later, he finally understands why his house-proud mother wasn’t quite so smitten.
“Her newly decorated lounge was covered in chew-holes and scratches. She still talks about the smell: the strongest cat urine you can ever imagine.”
Back then, Clark was a fledgeling keeper at Paradise Wildlife Park, a small zoo in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. He’d donned a keeper’s overalls as soon as he finished his GCSEs, after falling head over heels for the big cats while on work experience there. “I just knew immediately that’s what I wanted to do.”
Nowadays he runs the exotic carnivore enclosure at Australia Zoo on the Queensland coast, having emigrated 15 years ago. It’s his job to “socialise” the zoo’s big cats: a controversial practice that entails removing cubs from their mother and hand-rearing them at home. His most recent guests were a pair of week-old Sumatran tigers – which as a species are critically endangered, with fewer than 500 left in the wild – and a BBC documentary crew.
At first Spot and Stripe needed round-the-clock bottle-feeds. “As with any baby, I had to make sure that everything was washed and sterile. And not just bottles – with the number of towels you’re going through, it felt like the washing machine was going constantly. I was more exhausted than when my son was a baby.”
And like human parenting, tiger-rearing isn’t for the squeamish. Another of Clark’s duties as foster dad was to massage the cubs’ bottoms. “Naturally mum would lick them to stimulate them to go to the toilet, so I had to replicate that with my hand!” Watching him cradle the mewling cubs and gently mop vomit from their chins when they’re poorly, it’s clear his concern is as paternal as it’s professional. “Very much so. You can’t help it. You never, ever forget in those first couple of months how dependent they are. Everything you do has an impact on them.”
While all this makes for cute, cockle-warming television, you can’t help wondering why it’s necessary to remove them from their mother at all? “By forming this relationship – I call it a friendship – with our animals, we’re able to give them a much better quality of life,” insists Clark. “They’re not stressed or frustrated like tigers you might see in other facilities. We do a variety of things with our cats that normally just wouldn’t be possible in captivity. We even play with them in a purpose-built pool. We can only do that by having a really strong bond, and you need to establish that when they’re very little.”
Three times a week his tigers are put on a leash and taken for a walk in the bush. “It’s for mental rather than physical stimulation,” says Clark. “They get to use their senses and mark territory.” Members of the public can accompany the tigers on these outings, if they’re willing to pay 400 Australian dollars for the privilege.
“There are very few places around the world that have the same philosophy as we do at Australia Zoo,” he says. “It’s a very hands-on, interactive approach. You get to do things you don’t get to do at a more traditional zoo.”
Australia Zoo was originally a Reptile and Fauna Park, opened in 1970 by Bob and Lyn Irwin, the parents of wildlife presenter Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin, who died in 2006 after being hit by a stingray barb while snorkelling. During his lifetime Steve was often criticised for his gung-ho methods and on one occasion for holding his infant son too close to feeding crocodiles. The zoo was a pet project.
Last November, though, it hit the headlines after handler Dave Styles was badly mauled by a 114kg/250lb tiger while playing in the pool. He spent ten days in intensive care after suffering serious puncture wounds to the neck. The incident happened while the BBC were there filming for this series, though a spokeswoman says no crew was present at the time of the attack. She admits that Styles did have a camera attached to his helmet, but says it wasn’t recording.
Though many tiger experts say it’s impossible to control big cats through socialisation, Clark is sanguine. “In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have tigers in captivity. But they’re disappearing and we have to face the reality that unless we change – and rapidly – tigers in the wild will be extinct by the time our children have left education.
“In the past ten years we’ve put more than one and a half million dollars into tiger conservation projects. So if it weren’t for my tigers, the tigers in Sumatra would be in an even worse situation. It’s that simple for me.”
See Tigers about the House Monday – Wednesday at 8:00pm, BBC2