Keeper fights to get back in the tiger cage

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IT IS a hot, humid afternoon at Howletts animal park, near Canterbury. In their large, high-fenced enclosures, the park's 25 tigers are snoozing under trees or on high wooden platforms. A small girl complains to her father that there is nothing to see. Suddenly, Kalish and Jara, a pair of Indian tigers atop a 20ft wooden ramp, snap awake. A Land Rover has parked 50 yards away and the driver is walking towards the enclosure. The pair and their 18-month-old cub tumble down the ramp as Nick Marx, the big cats' keeper, approaches. When he gets to the fence they rub against it like domestic cats greeting their master. Mr Marx scratches their ears through the links. They make deep, rumbling purrs of pleasure.

Until eight months ago, Nick Marx, 44, would then have entered the enclosure for a "contact session". "I clean the enclosure - scrub out the pond, pick up the shit and bones. Then we have a bit of love and fuss. They jump on me to say hello."

On 13 November last year, Mr Marx's colleague Trevor Smith, 33, joined Balkash, a two-year-oldSiberian tiger, for "a bit of love and fuss". Balkash put his paws on Mr Smith's shoulders and bit him on the neck, killing him instantly. Visitors to the zoo saw Mr Marx beat Balkash away from his friend's body with a spade. Mr Smith was not the first victim of a tiger at Howletts. In 1980 a tigress called Zeya killed two keepers in separate attacks.

After Mr Smith's death, Howletts' owner, the millionaire businessman John Aspinall, banned keepers from enteringtiger cages while a review of procedures was carried out. Last month he said keepers could enter cages again, provided they had known the tigers from birth.

When officials of Canterbury City Council's environment and health department heard this, they issued a directive under the Health and Safety at Work Act, banning keepers from entering tigers' cages. "What is at issue is the safety and welfare of the men and women employed at Howletts," a statement said. "The council is duty-bound to take action where it sees a possible breach of the Act." Since then Mr Aspinall, 69, has poured scorn on council officials. Full page "Save Howletts" advertisements in the local press have rallied people to stand up against "bureaucracy and standardisation". Mr Aspinall says Howletts will close on 1 November if the ban stays.

Last week Mr Marx delivered nearly 1,000 letters opposing the ban to Canterbury council. One was from Peter Smith, Trevor Smith's father. He wrote of his late son's "unique bond" with the tigers and stressed that Trevor only entered tiger enclosures of his own free will. Ten thousand people have signed a petition.

Gilly Pridham, the councilofficer handling the matter, finds it hard to conceal her exasperation. "Talk about being between a rock and a hard place," she says. "When there is a death, the press screams for action. Now we are accused of trying to close down a popular, well-run zoo. It's nonsense to suggest we want to close Howletts. But the council must make safety paramount. Mr Aspinall's appeal against the ban will be heard at the Industrial Tribunal at Ashford in September. Until then we must wait and see."

Mr Aspinall seethes with irritation at the mention of the council. "They have over-reacted in panic. Countless people are killed in riding, skiing, and motoring accidents. But no one wants to ban those activities."

The object of the council's concern, Nick Marx, says he can look after himself: "No onemakes me go into a cage full of tigers. I'm not saying working with tigers isn't dangerous, but we know each other very well. In the unlikely event that anything does happen to me, then I've been doing what I enjoy." He says the benefits of close contact are obvious. "If the ban remains, the tigers' quality of life will be seriously diminished."

In the wild, poaching and the destruction of habitat mean there may be as few as 5,000 tigers left. Nick Marx says: "Their future is grim. When the last wild tiger is gone we may need to find ways of putting stock from sharp, fit animals like these back into the wild." He smiles as Jara's cub streaks across the enclosure and pounces on her mother. "Believe me, these would make a very good job of life in the wild."