I SEEM to be in a kind of dream. Or nightmare.
I’ve been ushered into a circus ring and now, staring down at me from a 12ft pedestal, is a lion. A massive, 350kg apex predator.
Its eyes are mesmerisingly beautiful and its mane is magnificent, but it’s his teeth and claws I’m most worried about. He’s also drooling.
I’m instructed to feed him a big hunk of meat on a stick and he slobbers like a household dog as he devours the piece. If he lands on me or Martin the lion tamer, or decides to eat us, we are literally a lion’s lunch.
I have to say — up close, I can’t really understand the appeal. This isn’t a dream, though. I’m here for a new two-part ITV documentary focusing on Britain’s very own tiger and lion kings, as well as keepers of other dangerous wild animals.
The lion is actually in Munich, because what British keeper Martin Lacey does is now outlawed in the UK and certainly isn’t politically correct. Yet he remains unrepentant.
He says: “People don’t understand about animals. In England it’s a land of animal lovers but sadly they don’t understand so much about animals. Maybe they are brainwashed into thinking we don’t take care of our animals.
“The animals have everything they need. You can see yourself how good-looking all the animals are — we really take care of them. All my friends from England that come over with their families, they think it’s fantastic and they don’t have it in England any more.”
This wasn’t the only time I met a lion during the making of this programme.
In Nottinghamshire, I saw similar beautiful eyes emerge from a hazy mist because the lion’s owner, Reece Oliver, has installed a steamy hot tub so he can relax and look out over the enclosures containing his favourite beasts.
But this wasn’t the Serengeti — I could hear wagons thundering past on the M1.
The lions are just a part of Reece’s collection of wild animals. And with animal rights groups and some of Reece’s neighbours in opposition to it, I want to know what might have motivated his obsession.
He says: “I like to take risks. I’m a bit unique, you know. I always want something different and I like to be different. I’ve gone past the point in my life where I care so much about what people think.”
On my travels around the country, this is the kind of thing I heard a lot.
Frankly, I was gobsmacked how easy it is to get hold of a dangerous wild animal licence — and as the schemes are run by local councils, there are no set national rules for owning them.
There are about 4,000 such animals, including lions, tigers, bears, crocodiles and giant snakes, in private hands in this country. I was fascinated to discover this and wanted to look into the issue.
We are not necessarily talking about Netflix Tiger King stars Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin here.
Many of the owners are entrepreneurs who have spent years making money in other ways and now want to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
I met dangerous wild animal collectors Andrew Riddel and his partner Tracy Walters, whose large Lincolnshire property is home to monkeys, leopards, lions and bears.
Andrew tells me: “I mean, we can all go out and buy a Rolex or have a silly Bentley sat on the drive, but you can’t go to Tesco and get a tiger.”
The animals are lucky Andrew and Tracy have such a large property to keep them at. Andrew later told me how upset he was when one of his big cats died.
He says: “I never cried, you know, when my mother and father died. I’ll be honest with you. When it was put down, I had to walk down the yard.”
In Oxfordshire I met former circus trainer Jim Clubb, who now trains animals for TV, films and adverts and keeps five tigers on his five-acre site.
For many, the question is: Why are royal Bengals like his in private hands, rather than roaming free?
Jim tells me: “If it was a perfect world and especially if we didn’t have any humans in it, they all could. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
“With shooting, poaching . . . if we don’t keep these animals safe, then generations to come will never get to see them.”
It was a very difficult film to make because most of us have strong feelings about this issue, one way or another.
Most people would prefer to see lions and tigers living in the wild.
But with humans responsible for destroying their natural habitats or poaching them, there are now more big cats in captivity than there are free, and keeping these animals as pets in Britain is in vogue.
So much so that ownership of wild cats has gone up more than 50 per cent in the past 20 years.
And I don’t doubt that the owners love their animals. Tracy Walters tells me: “I couldn’t be like a normal zoo and pass him on to another zoo. I wouldn’t do it, no. They are my babies.”
Reece reckons his animals love him back: “They are happy here and they love me. When I’m not there, they kind of miss me, and then when I’m there they’re like puppy dogs.”
The owners of these animals are a tight-knit community, and many house the creatures in large enclosures, rather like private zoos.
But not everyone can afford this luxury. In the second programme, I met Gary Smith from Derby, who keeps almost 50 dangerous animals in his three-bedroom terraced house.
In his venomous collection are a 15ft python, 36 assorted snakes in one room — some venomous — and Thor, a monitor lizard who became locally notorious after Gary overturned a council decision banning him from walking it in the city’s parks.
When I ask whether he thinks the animals should be in the wild, Gary says: “Their habitat’s just shrinking so fast and if we haven’t got ’em . . . and people learning to actually care about them . . . they’re just gonna get extinct sooner or later and people are just gonna see ’em on pictures.”
So it seems some owners believe they are conserving species. However, others will say all the animals that we met during this documentary would be better served in large sanctuaries, which more closely resemble the environments they have evolved to inhabit.
Returning captive-bred big cats to the wild sadly isn’t an option, as they have never learned to hunt and would therefore likely die or be poached.
One of the most important issues for me is that there should be a national approach to the issuing of dangerous wild animal licences.
At the moment it is in the hands of local councils, which means the rules change depending on where you live — it’s a postcode lottery. Licences are granted on the proviso you can ensure the public’s safety.
In a zoo in Wales, I spoke to a couple whose lynx escaped and had to be shot dead. And in the past three years, there have been at least 155 big cat sightings reported to the police.
I was certainly shocked there are lions and tigers living in people’s back gardens in the UK.
There are strong feelings and views and it’s been fascinating to immerse myself in this world and hear from those directly involved, on all sides.
I’m hoping you can watch and make your own mind up.
- Britain’s Tiger Kings – On The Trail With Ross Kemp starts tonight at 9pm on ITV.
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