A perk of the job, when you’re a top BBC presenter with a huge social media following, is that if you climb onto a soap-box, people listen.
Just ask Chris Packham, who over the years has used prime-time status to front noisy campaigns against everything from country sports and badger culls to plastic pollution and the HS2 high-speed rail scheme.
Only this week, he was calling for Britons to refrain from the ‘bizarre habit’ of mowing lawns, in order to protect nature, while last month he was lobbying against I’m A Celebrity . . . for making contestants eat insects, a practice he dubbed ‘exploitative’ and as ‘abuse’.
This tub-thumping has earned both brickbats and plaudits, with critics arguing that BBC stars ought not, to quote the Corporation’s new Director-General Tim Davie, moonlight as ‘an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media’. On occasion, he has been officially sanctioned.
Now, I can reveal, the Springwatch presenter’s social media habit has sparked a spectacular dispute involving five tigers, two lions and one very cross Spanish circus owner.
The row culminated this week with an official watchdog, the Fundraising Regulator, launching an inquiry into The Wildheart Trust, a charity that runs a zoo on the Isle of Wight and counts Mr Packham as a trustee. The zoo is run by his long-term girlfriend, Charlotte Corney, who inherited it from her father.
A perk of the job, when you’re a top BBC presenter with a huge social media following, is that if you climb onto a soap-box, people listen. Just ask Chris Packham (pictured)
At issue is an appeal for the zoo charity (which pays Ms Coney £68,000-a-year in rent) that the BBC star fronted earlier this year.
Like many fundraising videos, the two-minute advert was designed to tug at the heart strings. To a soundtrack of mournful piano music, Mr Packham told how coronavirus had left the zoo struggling to do its job, which he sombrely described as to ‘rescue emotionally and physically broken animals, principally big cats from European circuses, that have endured horrific conditions throughout their lives’. Declaring it a ‘time of crisis’, Mr Packham said ‘I’m afraid we are going to need your help’ to keep the zoo’s inhabitants fed and warm.
On a donation page, viewers were told about the creatures that would benefit from their cash: ‘Over the last few years we’ve welcomed five adorable tigers (Mondo, Girona, Antonella, Zoppa and Natasha) and two gentle giant lions (Vigo and Khuma) into our big cat sanctuary,’ it read. ‘While at the mercy of travelling circuses in Spain these defenceless animals were the victims of unimaginable neglect and cruelty living hellish lives confined within squalid beast-wagons or crammed into tiny pens where they were left to fight for scrapes [sic] of food in between performances.’
Mr Packham continued: ‘Any donation that you can possibly afford will be most gratefully received with a purr and a roar and a wag of a tail from a tiger.’
It was heart-rending stuff. And viewers dug deep: more than 1,100 chipped in £62,912. The taxpayer added another £11,578 via gift aid.
Yet behind Mr Packham’s moving plea lie some awkward facts.
Namely, the five tigers The Wildheart Trust keeps on the Isle of Wight were not, strictly speaking, ‘rescued’ from a circus. At least not in the way a casual donor might have assumed.
Instead, they turn out to have come his way after they were voluntarily given to a non-profit big cat sanctuary near Alicante in southern Spain in 2017. The original donor was the owner of a circus who says he decided to stop using large cats in response to changing public attitudes.
Rather than selling his creatures on the open market, where they would have each fetched 3,000 euros, he gave them to the sanctuary for free. The reason? When I tracked him down this week, he said he loved them and wanted to ensure that they enjoyed a comfortable retirement.
Moreover, although Mr Packham’s Wildheart Trust claimed in its appeal that its zoo provided ‘forever homes to rescued big cats and other animals that are unwanted and have nowhere else to go,’ the tigers were, in fact, living happily at the Spanish sanctuary until it acquired them in 2018.
The Dutch charity that runs the sanctuary, AAP Primodomus, says it donates big cats to approved partners, such as the Isle of Wight Zoo, to free up space for more residents.
Perhaps most importantly, in light of the regulator’s investigation, there appears to be very little concrete evidence that Mr Packham’s tigers were ‘victims of unimaginable neglect and cruelty’ through their ‘hellish’ lives at the circus.
Now, I can reveal, the Springwatch presenter’s social media habit has sparked a spectacular dispute involving five tigers, two lions and one very cross Spanish circus owner (file image)
All of which has given rise to the most almighty stink.
Outraged at being accused of abusing ‘defenceless’ animals, circus owner Ringo Macaggi described the BBC presenter’s claims as ‘a disgrace’. The fundraising film, he said, contained ‘one lie after another’ designed to manipulate viewers into handing over money.
Crucially, Mr Macaggi’s version of events is at least partly supported by Raquel Lopez Teruel, a Spanish animal rights campaigner and lawyer who helped facilitate the donation of the animals to the sanctuary by his ‘Gran Circo Wonderland’ in 2017.
‘I can genuinely say I don’t have any evidence the circus mistreated the tigers,’ she told me. ‘My personal experience is that I’ve seen concern and interest in the wellbeing of those animals from Ringo and the rest of the people from the circus.’
Meanwhile, the animal welfare charity which runs the Spanish sanctuary, AAP Primodomus, confirmed that Mr Macaggi had turned down a lucrative opportunity to sell the tigers for slaughter — the skins are valuable, while tiger blood and bone is widely used in Chinese medicine — adding that he ‘did the right thing by donating them to us’.
A British acquaintance of the circus owner has therefore made a formal complaint to the Fundraising Regulator about the Packham video.
The quango, set up after a string of scandals over exploitative fundraising in the charity sector, responded on December 8: ‘We have decided to investigate your complaint.’
It will now examine whether Mr Packham broke its official code, which states that charities ‘must not unfairly criticise or insult other people or organisations’, and ‘must not mislead anyone, or be likely to mislead anyone, either by leaving out information, or by being inaccurate or ambiguous, or by exaggerating details’.
To understand where the truth might lie in this tangled affair, one must first appreciate the controversy that surrounds the keeping of large animals by circuses.
Opponents believe it is always cruel because circus animals are unable to exhibit ‘natural’ behaviour. What’s more, they are usually kept in imperfect enclosures, and spend much of their time being moved from place to place in small containers.
Animal rights campaigners also regard the process of training them as abusive, and believe performing amounts to exploitation.
The row culminated this week with an official watchdog, the Fundraising Regulator, launching an inquiry into The Wildheart Trust, a charity that runs a zoo on the Isle of Wight and counts Mr Packham as a trustee
As a result, the circus industry has found itself on the losing side of public opinion. In Spain in recent years, 400 towns and cities have banned circuses from using large animals.
And this brings us back to Mr Macaggi and his Gran Circo Wonderland, which in 2017 owned some seven tigers and one lion.
The animals, he insists, were healthy and happy, spending most of their time in a large enclosure that contained food, water, toys, climbing apparatus, and plenty of shade. They were regularly inspected by vets and some had been reared from birth after being bred in captivity, something that generally requires animals to be content, he argues.
‘Our installations didn’t just comply with regulations, they surpassed them,’ he said.
Photographs appear to support his claims, as do the ‘passports’ and documentary records which he shared this week detail extensive veterinary care and welfare inspections.
Mr Macaggi describes the claim that the circus forced the animals to fight for scraps of food as ‘ridiculous’, pointing out that, aside from being unspeakably cruel and abusive, doing so would serve no purpose.
He explained instead that ever-more restrictive regulations led him to decide in April 2017 that it was no longer viable to continue using big cats. Since it had also become impossible to travel around much of Spain with the animals, he paid for them to be housed at a private facility near a town called Guardamar del Segura while their future was ironed out.
Over the ensuing weeks, he passed up several offers to sell the eight animals, including one for 24,000 euros, ‘because I thought there was a 90 per cent chance that the person just wanted them for their skins and was going to kill them’.
Mr Macaggi then became concerned that the private facility was not feeding or caring for them properly. He therefore entered into negotiations overseen by lawyer Raquel Lopez Teruel to donate them to AAP Primadomus.
When they were handed over to AAP in September 2017, she issued a press release stating: ‘The circus contacted me to help them find a good home for their animals, since they did not want them to end up euthanised, in another circus or in a bad place.’
The sanctuary filmed the collection of the cats from the private facility. Footage shows several were indeed in poor condition after their five-month stay there. As does a vet’s report stating that their fur was dirty and they were suffering from worms, along with a string of other health conditions.
However, AAP stresses that the facility was not run by Mr Macaggi or his circus, and — crucially — it has not blamed him for their treatment there.
Five tigers were then passed onto the Isle of Wight Zoo in 2018. On their arrival, Mr Packham made another appeal for donations to The Wildheart Trust, saying: ‘Their [new] compounds have got nice big pools which they love. We released one, a big old male called Mondo, who sniffed the air and went for a swim. Then he sat in the pond lolling about. In his 13 years he has never done that.’ Again, heart-rending stuff.
But it also happens to be untrue, according to Sarita Macaggi, Ringo’s cousin, who was responsible for much of their care. ‘In many of the places where the circus would stop we were able to provide a pool for them to swim in,’ she tells me. ‘And when they were small we would also often take them for a swim in rivers or the sea.’
The Mail submitted several questions to Mr Packham, asking him to provide evidence to justify the various serious claims made in the fundraising video. No on-the-record response was made. However, friends of the presenter insist that the lives of its five tigers in the care of Circo Wonderland ‘were without any doubt horrible’.
They also stress that the two lions at the Isle of Wight Zoo came from a separate circus, Circo Europa, and argue that the regulatory complaint against him is part of a vexatious campaign by supporters of country sports.
Earlier this week, Mr Packham released a video clip on social media in which he addressed ‘rumours circulating that The Wildheart Trust, of which I am a trustee and so is my partner Charlotte Corney, has been acting improperly, attempting to defraud our donors when we’ve run fundraising campaigns’.
He said: ‘There are allegations that the tigers weren’t badly treated at the circus. Well, several had their claws removed and their canine teeth cut off, several of them were underweight and one had a significant limp. In fact, it was named Zoppa which is Italian for ‘lame’. And our orthopedic vet believes that this was due to a historical fracture that appears to have not been treated at the time.’
Striking stuff. But is it true? The circus denies that any of its tigers ever had canines cut off while in its care, pointing out that doing so would make the creatures much less attractive to audiences. ‘The only time we ever had a tooth removed was when one of our cats developed an abscess, so needed dental treatment,’ it says.
The vet’s report compiled when the animals were taken from the private facility notes that several tigers had ‘broken’ teeth, though that may have occurred through old age (two of them were 20 years old, which is towards the limit of a big cat’s life).
The document states that one (not several) had canines that had been ‘chopped off,’ while two had claws removed. However, it’s impossible to be sure who owned the tigers at the time those procedures happened, or why they were carried out.
It further states that two of the five tigers that ended up on the Isle of Wight were overweight, rather than underweight, as Mr Packham has claimed.
As for Zoppa, the circus says she was seriously injured shortly after birth, when her mother rolled on her: ‘The injury was treated at the time and shown all over Valencia on a now defunct TV station called Channel Nine.’
Critics of Mr Packham might at this point argue that attention to factual detail has never really been his strong point, at least when he has a bee in his bonnet about emotive animal welfare issues.
A couple of years back, for example, he posted a message on Twitter calling for a ban on shooting wading birds. It claimed that bloodthirsty shooting enthusiasts were routinely killing endangered lapwings. That was untrue: the species is protected, cannot be eaten, is not a pest, and is never shot in the UK. A couple of hours later, he apologised, saying his tweet was ‘incorrectly worded’.
In recent days, he accused the Queen of running ‘intensive driven game shoots’ during a row over an owl that was accidentally trapped by a gamekeeper at Sandringham. In fact, Palace sources say, the pheasant shoot at Sandringham is the opposite of intensive: quarry is limited to pheasant and partridges that breed in the wild. None are reared solely to be shot.
In yet another factual lapse, Mr Packham this month used Facebook to sell Christmas cards to fans (£16.50 for ten cards), telling them money raised would go to a ‘charity’ called Wild Justice.
In fact, Wild Justice is not a registered charity but a lobby group, which seeks to attack country pursuits via lawsuits.
Last spring, it was responsible for forcing the Government to temporarily outlaw the shooting of corvids such as crows and rooks, leaving sheep farmers unable to control the birds, which predate new-born lambs.
Mr Packham decided roughly 48 hours later to remove the Facebook post, dubbing it ‘a mistake, a simple mistake that was immediately corrected’.
Whether he has made similar ‘mistakes’ in attempting to persuade fans to give generously to the Isle of Wight Zoo’s former circus tigers is, of course, an issue that the Fundraising Regulator must now get to the bottom of.
The furious Mr Macaggi, whom he has accused of appalling acts of animal abuse, certainly believes himself to be entirely innocent and says he will fight to clear his name.
So whatever they conclude, this strange and messy catfight looks set to continue.
Additional reporting: Gerard Couzens in Spain