Lions And Zoos

Inside “Animal Lover” Michael Jackson’s Zoo

LIKE millions of people around the world, I was a fan of Michael Jackson’s music – I still am, I guess, because I can separate the artist from the art.

In his heyday, it wasn’t just the music that made him a big star, it was people’s fascination with his lifestyle.

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Michael Jackson with Muscles the boa constrictor – who snuck into his tropical bird aviary and ate the localsCredit: Hulton Archives – Getty
Bubbles the chimpanzee was slapped by Jacko before being replaced by a younger monkey

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Bubbles the chimpanzee was slapped by Jacko before being replaced by a younger monkeyCredit: Landmark Media
Jackson's Neverland Ranch where he kept animals

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Jackson’s Neverland Ranch where he kept animalsCredit: Getty – Contributor

And a major part of that was the huge zoo at his Neverland Ranch in California, which I investigate in a new ITV documentary.

As I try to find out what happened to the late singer’s many animals, I come face to face with a three-ton elephant he once owned.

And then I find myself on a Utah radio station screaming for information on the fate of its two remaining pet giraffes.

Their last owners had fled a desert town under cover of night after accusing town officials of poisoning the other two they owned.

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Everyone remembers Bubbles the chimpanzee who was brought to press conferences and featured in the Thriller star’s music videos.

But there were well over a hundred other Jackson animals at one time – lions, tigers, bears, reptiles. He had them all.

7 foot brown bears eating ice cream

When the pop star left Neverland after his acquittal of child molestation charges in 2005 and moved to the Middle East, he also left his zoo. He then returned to the United States and died of a heart attack in 2009 after taking various sedatives.

Very little has been known about the whereabouts of the animals since 2005 and I was curious to find out what happened to the most famous private collection in the world. It is very likely that some of his pets are still alive.

The problem with finding out was that many of their handlers at Neverland had signed nondisclosure agreements, which meant they were unlikely to talk to me.

Still, some did, including Mark Biancaniello, a trainer at the 2,700-acre ranch Jackson has called home for nearly a quarter century.

What he told me immediately resonated with me in light of the popular idea that the singer was an animal lover.

He spoke of 7-foot brown bears who learned to ride in bumper cars and golf carts while eating ice cream.

Nonetheless, Mark described Jackson as an exemplary pet owner and Neverland as something of a Noah’s Ark for rescued animals.

Others who knew Jackson and were willing to talk followed.

One was the friend of singer and personal portrait painter, David Nordahl, who told me a giraffe called Jabaar had died after a barn door was left open and a gust of wind blew it away. slammed on him, breaking his neck.

A search of old newsreel archives revealed that years earlier, law enforcement officers had visited Neverland and discovered that Jabaar was being held in an enclosure far too small for the needs of a giraffe. Two other Jackson giraffes died in a barn fire.

I had undertaken this trip with an open mind, but once a tragedy, twice a farce, as they say.

Surely, if one of your pet giraffes dies prematurely and then two more, you’ll start to wonder if you’re the best person to take care of these complex creatures.

Jabaar’s offspring didn’t fare much better. When Jackson left Neverland, many animals were either sold to other private collectors or housed in sanctuaries and zoos across the country.

Jabaar’s four descendants were purchased by a couple called the Hancocks, who had little experience caring for wild animals.

In Arizona, I met a former cop named Ben Jennett who had been involved in handling many complaints about the couple.

I discovered that Jackson bought two baby elephants from a convicted drug dealer in South Africa called Riccardo Ghiazza, who was later convicted of animal cruelty.

Ross Kemp

First, the Hancocks housed them in a cramped boat storage facility in a stall next to three tigers and several poisonous snakes, which I thought was very cruel.

Then, I was told, they moved them to a hillside in the arid desert where temperatures drop below zero. Unsurprisingly, two of them froze to death.

Neverland’s trainer, Mark, had told me that all of Jackson’s animals went to good homes, but the Hancocks seemed to be terrible keepers.

As one of the couple’s former employees told me, “They were just trophies so they could tell everyone they owned animals from Neverland.”

At that time, I was reminded that people in the public eye are influencers – others follow their lead and copy their behaviors – and wondered how many others had started their own animal collections private after being inspired by Jackson.

Mark had also insisted that Jackson save his animals from circuses that mistreated and abused them.

It certainly wasn’t for everyone, and there was a lot of abuse once they were in Neverland, according to several people I spoke to for the program.

I discovered that Jackson bought two baby elephants from a convicted drug dealer in South Africa called Riccardo Ghiazza, who was later convicted of animal cruelty.

He would starve elephants and deprive them of water in order to tame them and sell them to private collectors like Michael Jackson.

Perhaps cruelest of all, Ghiazza beat the elephants with bullhooks, sharp metal sticks that have now been banned in several US states.

I was shocked when I looked through unreleased footage from inside Neverland that showed Ali and Baba, Jackson’s elephants, having hooks used on them.

They were also chained inside their barns. Elephants travel dozens of kilometers a day and suffer severe psychological damage when tamed by this method.

Baba now belongs to one of Neverland’s elephant trainers and when he agreed to meet me, I asked him why he used a bullhook on those intelligent creatures.

He regretted the practices of the past and, to be fair, we know a lot more now about the suffering of animals in captivity than we did then.

Yet there was a wealth of information in the 1990s about best practices for keeping wild animals and it seems obvious to me that Jackson, despite presenting himself as a conservationist, didn’t care about seek them out or simply ignore them.

When someone as famous and respected as chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall tells you that you mistreat your animals, maybe you should listen.

Jane visited Neverland and told Jackson that her enclosures were too small and that it was wrong to separate baby animals from their mothers.

She was appalled when the singer told her that his supposedly beloved pet chimp, Bubbles, had been beaten and thrown across rooms for misbehaving.

Any lingering notion that Jackson was oblivious to all this mistreatment evaporated.

This program is not just about Michael Jackson. The megastar is a mirror through which we can see the world’s uncomfortable relationship with wild animals.

I don’t see it as a coincidence that the global boom in private exotic pet ownership, now worth £230billion a year, really started to grow when Jackson moved to Neverland.

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Let’s not forget the grotesque treatment of big cats shown in the Netflix documentary Tiger King.

There’s no doubt that Michael Jackson seemed to love his animals, but it seems, like others, that he didn’t fully understand the responsibility that comes with owning them.

  • In Search of Michael Jackson’s Zoo with Ross Kemp is on ITV Wednesday at 9 p.m.
The elephants were sold to Jacko by a drug dealer who used starvation to train them

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The elephants were sold to Jacko by a drug dealer who used starvation to train themCredit: Rex Features
The star's giraffes froze to death after being taken from the closed zoo to

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The star’s giraffes froze to death after being taken from the closed zoo to ‘roam free’ in the American desertCredit: Splash News
Louie the llama was mauled and left for dead by Jacko's dogs

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Louie the llama was mauled and left for dead by Jacko’s dogs
The bears were trained by Jacko to ride in bumper cars and golf carts while eating ice cream

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The bears were trained by Jacko to ride in bumper cars and golf carts while eating ice creamCredit: Getty
In Search of Michael Jackson's Zoo with Ross Kemp is on ITV on Wednesday at 9 p.m.

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In Search of Michael Jackson’s Zoo with Ross Kemp is on ITV on Wednesday at 9 p.m.