World is a jungle for lions and tigers put out of work

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

November 03, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Maybe it's a measure of how deep the recession is biting in Britain that even the king of the beasts faces redundancy.

So does the lordly elephant, the humpy camel, the patriarchal baboon, the monogamous wolf and all the others among the 600 or so animals at the Windsor Safari Park.

Their futures are cloudier than those of Britain's miners. There's not much work around for miners these days, even less for tigers and dolphins, not to mention emus, lemurs and eland antelopes.

They can't get on at the London Zoo. That place is forever hovering on the edge of bankruptcy.

All these creatures once delighted over a million visitors a year to the Windsor Safari Park. This is a 144-acre spread just west of London, near the eponymous castle with soaring ramparts where the queen sometimes holds court.

The royal family has nothing to do with the park. They are simply neighbors.

Now the park is closed for the season, and it is doubtful it will reopen in the spring for its 23rd year. The Windsor Safari Park has been in receivership for about nine months. The receivers, a firm called Cork Gully, have been trying to find somebody to take it over as a going concern. That is, animals and all.

They have had no luck and may have given up: They've handed pink slips to 90 of the 145 employees. The rest were retained to take care of the animals through the winter.

Not surprising, most of the concern over this unhappy outcome seems to be expressed for the animals rather than the human beings involved. That does not reflect a hardheartedness or indifference to the fate of those being let go, but simply an appreciation that layoffs of people in Britain occur so frequently these days and in such great number it is not news any longer.

A couple of weeks ago the government announced it was firing 30,000 of the country's 50,000 miners, a threat from which it subsequently retreated. Against potential disasters of that magnitude, word that 90 more people are going on the dole at a safari park doesn't even rate a one-column headline.

But the question of what to do with 34 lions, seven elephants, 45 baboons, seven tigers, 13 wolves, eight dolphins, 16 cheetahs and representatives of a variety of other species, now that's a poser. And it is the question asked most frequently of the receivers, the people who have to figure out what to do with them.

The receivers have been solicitous, earnestly insisting that great care will be taken that the menagerie is humanely distributed. A committee of "animal experts" is to be assembled, said Oriana Pound, of Cork Gully. They will decide on any and all destinations.

Circuses are ruled out, though she's not certain why. Animal groupings, such as they are, will be kept together. Zoos will be queried. The animals will be given away, not sold.

A phone call to the Baltimore Zoo provoked an intense lack of interest. According to Brian Rutledge, the executive director of the menagerie in Druid Hill Park, safari parks usually keep the commonest species of wild animals, "not the kind we would be looking for."

"We've got all the lions and tigers and bears we need," he said.

What would the Baltimore Zoo be interested in?

"A female white rhino and a bull giraffe," said Mr. Rutledge.

"We've got six rhinos and 10 giraffes," piped Ms. Pound, her voice full of hope. Unfortunately, she added, "I don't know the sex of these."

But 600 animals is a lot of animals to find new homes for, and the receivers do admit that for some at least this might be the end of the line. Said Chris Barlow, also of Cork Gully, "It is no part of our strategy now or in the future to destroy animals."

But he added, "It is possible that very, very old or seriously ill animals, under veterinary advice, may have to be the subject of euthanasia."

Of course it doesn't have to come to that. According to Ms. Pound, the firm hasn't completely given up on finding somebody to buy and operate Windsor Safari Park. The place reportedly hasn't been losing money but is being closed because its parent company, Themes International, has been unable to service its debts.

However, according to Mr. Barlow, the only serious negotiations are being carried out with a company not much interested in animals: the Danish toy company Lego Group, which is looking for a place to locate another Lego Land theme park.

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