David’s big cat rescue

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Ex-circus tiger, Phevos, who was rescued in Greece by David Barnes.

A PETERBOROUGH man’s seven year battle to rehouse two tigers finally bore fruit in October, but he hasn’t finished yet. David Barnes told his remarkable story to deputy features editor John Baker.

THE thought of two tigers never seeing real grass until ten years of age is too sad to imagine.

There’s a happy ending though; Athena and Phevos now swim languidly in their own swimming pool, emerging to enjoy their own land and trees, in a brand new enclosure in their zoo in Greece.

They will never know that their new life of luxury has only been possible through the actions of a man who lives 1,500 miles away.

David Barnes (58) of Newark Avenue, Peterborough, has no rich backers, no bottomless pit of money to devote towards his mission – saving animals across Europe.

But through his work the two magnificent beasts now have a new 500,000 Euro enclosure in the town of Trikala, in central Greece.

They are just the latest in a string of animals to benefit, including 50 monkeys, three chimps, two lions, coatis, skunks, iguanas, crown cranes and a crocodile, from a labour of love stretching back almost 15 years.

And he’s not stopping now, as he believes the zoo could be used to house rare birds and provide educational opportunities for Greek children.

Mr Barnes, who met wife Esther in Greece, said: “On October 19 I went out for 10 days to oversee the finish of this new enclosure and to move the tigers.

“They are now experiencing their first ever taste of grass, a lot of freedom, a new pool, real trees to claw and the opportunity to live a life so far removed from their circus days cooped up with 10 other tigers in beast wagons.

“They had never seen real grass. They found it fascinating, and liked touching it.

“I have spent seven years with them, and the female likes me to touch her head and the male likes me to rub his nose – it’s a joy to see them so happy.

“This enclosure cost the Municipality 500,000 Euros and even (wildlife charity) Born Free are quite amazed at what I, as a one man band, have achieved.

“You can’t just go over to Greece and say ‘we are English, do as we say’, because you will never get anywhere.

“I’m just an ordinary bloke who has gone about things the right way.”

Mr Barnes fits his global efforts around managing a sports and books shop in Uppingham, near Oakham, following a varied career with spells working for the RSPCA, Harrods pet department, and Wood Green animal shelters.

He’s been moving animals since 1996, and first took up the case of the tigers when he heard about them in 2003.

Their “home” with an Italian Circus based in Greece wasn’t the most conducive of surroundings.

The best place to move them was a facility in Texas, an unattainable dream which would have cost £72,000.

So they were moved elsewhere in Greece, and he said: “I knew Trikala and as soon as I knew they were going there I made a visit, but luckily they were showing no signs of being scared by what had happened, so I was relieved.

“I made myself known and was later invited back to address people involved, and started to persuade them to rebuild the enclosure.

“It took five years to convince them and at times I never thought it would happen, but on one occasion I went with the owner of Colchester Zoo Dominique Tropeano.

“His architect had designed a fantastic enclosure with the tigers in mind, not the public – and the zoo decided to go with it.”

In April 2010 Mr Barnes received the news he had been waiting for, that the enclosure was finished, and eagerly flew out to Greece.

But it was a false dawn. The electric fence designed to enclose the tigers could be reached by the public, and the security gates were unsatisfactory, so the tigers couldn’t be moved,

Mr Barnes demanded improvements and went home, only to return in October to find the new enclosure still wasn’t finished.

“The workers said: ‘we were waiting for you to come back to supervise us so it’s done properly’.

“So 20 of them, all Albanian, worked day and night to finish it, which is quite unusual in Greece!”

In the next five years Mr Barnes hopes to demolish and rebuild the zoo, apart from the tiger enclosure. to care for rare birds which are currently kept in poor quality rescue centres across Greece.

He said: “My idea went down very well and the only fly in the ointment at the moment is that the Mayor for the last eight years, Michael Tamilos, has failed to get a third term and he was the driving force behind the changes.

“Meetings are currently going ahead with the new mayor, who I have yet to meet and I just have to wait now to see what the progress will be.

“I am hopeful for a trip out there in the new year to have some discussions. I have come too far to give up!”

About Trikala

MR Barnes said that Trikala is very similar to Peterborough in some regards, but there are also differences:

– It is a university city with a vibrant young population, and in 2005 became Greece’s first E- city and every household was given free internet access.

Football is almost a religion in Greece, matches are screened live and almost every café and bar has screens showing the matches.

On October 1 a smoking ban in all bars and restaurants in Trikala came into force, but seems to have been largely ignored.

– Petrol is about £1.55 a litre.

Most bars stay open until about 4am but there is never trouble, and Mr Barnes said that police are rarely needed. Most Greeks drink spirits instead of beer, and every drink is always accompanied with water.

Greek children are brought up from an early age to show respect to their families, relatives, and there is no tolerance to break these rules.

– Education is the number one priority in Greece – most students even have extra tuition after school and at weekends.

– The River Litheos runs through its centre, it has a long history, Asklepios, the founder of medicine was born there and his house is still the scene of excavations. Three of the Argonauts came from Trikala.

– Twenty minutes from Trikala is Meteora, the home of the world famous monasteries built more than 600 metres up on pinnacles of rock. The monks gain access by ropes and baskets and scenes from James Bond and Indiana Jones were filmed there.


For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL  33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

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