Walkies on the wild side

Exotic animals may seem like fun pets in theory, but what happens when you end up owning a hungry, carnivorous monster? Increasingly they're being dumped or neglected, but one man is fighting to save them. Hermione Eyre meets Southend's answer to Crocodile Dundee
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mr and Mrs Smith were surprised when their son suddenly started eating his packed lunches. "He didn't seem to get any less skinny though," said Mrs Smith of her son. "Yes, I was suspicious. There was a funny smell, too. We knew, really, that something was up." One Saturday afternoon, while their son was out playing bass with local heavy metal group Doom's Sister, Mrs Smith pushed past the Keep Out sign and went into his bedroom. When she lifted the lid on a large plastic box jutting out from under his bed, she found a 3ft-long anaconda.

Mr and Mrs Smith were surprised when their son suddenly started eating his packed lunches. "He didn't seem to get any less skinny though," said Mrs Smith of her son. "Yes, I was suspicious. There was a funny smell, too. We knew, really, that something was up." One Saturday afternoon, while their son was out playing bass with local heavy metal group Doom's Sister, Mrs Smith pushed past the Keep Out sign and went into his bedroom. When she lifted the lid on a large plastic box jutting out from under his bed, she found a 3ft-long anaconda.

So that was who she had been making spam sandwiches for every day. After they got over the shock, Mr and Mrs Smith realised they had a problem. A long, green slithery problem that wanted to bask in Brazilian temperatures and tie knots round live rabbits. A problem that would soon measure 6ft. Like so many "exotic" pets - little lizards that turn into gnarled and spitting dragons, whiskered fish that bite off fingers, spiders that lay egg sacs bigger than themselves - the anaconda required more care than the family that had acquired it could give. Soon they became afraid. "It was like having a monster in the house," said Mrs Smith.

This scenario is becoming increasingly common. "Exotic pets are going through the roof," says RSPCA officer Ian Gough. And according to the Federation of British Herpetologists, pet reptiles will outnumber dogs in this country by 2006. But many owners are ill-equipped to deal with their animals, as Gough bears testimony: "Recently, I've had to put so many iguanas to sleep," he says.

It looked like the anaconda too would have to be destroyed, until one extraordinary man came to the rescue. The man was Iain Newby, the Crocodile Dundee of Southend. Any orphan animal in the South East is welcome in his home - as long as it is dangerous. He is famous in his home town - the website "Surreal Southend" claims that he has "400 alligators in his back garden". A local RSPCA officer, Ian Gough, denies this is true, but confirms Iain does have a "large number of wild ones" in his back yard. I wanted to see it for myself.

When I first get hold of him on the phone, he is quiet, reserved. Then he starts to tell me about some recent exploits: chasing racoons across the roof of a bungalow in Kent, catching a missing milk snake on Furness Island, rescuing a green-faced Burmese python from a squat in Basildon. I arrange to visit him at the centre of his operations, on the last misty fist of land between Southend and the sea: Shoeburyness.

He comes to meet me at the station, jumping out of his jeep and landing square on his stout cowboy boots. He is a large man, with flaxen hair straggling out from under a tall Stetson. The hat shades a strong, weatherworn face and anxious eyes. He wears a full-length waxed jacket, stained with dribble (which I later discover is cane toad effluent). It is not clear to me if he realises what a figure he cuts in this Outback-style Cayman Catcher outfit. We speed off in the jeep, which has marked on the side in large letters "DWARF - Dangerous Wild Animal Rescue Facility".

But the facility, when we get there, is not what you would expect one to look like. It is situated on a quiet residential cul-de-sac, which looks like the kind of place where the neighbours would kick up a fuss if you wanted to erect an unsightly satellite dish. And the facility itself is, to all appearances, a modest, detached ex-council house. I follow Iain up the crazy paving.

"What's it got to do with you anyway?" a crabbed little Punchinello voice shouts as soon as I go inside. "That's Georgie," says Iain, "African grey cockatoo. Well, we call him Georgie because it's a name he often says. Don't know for sure, see. Case of abandonment." Iain is shouting by now, because a great racket has started up: cockatoo claws ringing on cages, squarks, squeals and sonorous woofs. I am pretty sure I can hear a couple of human baby cries mixed in as well.

Meeting the family takes about two hours. After 12 fish in the hall, and nine parrots in the front room, I get to meet Lisa Tremble, Iain's partner and co-founder of Dwarf. She is breast-feeding Harry, while keeping an eye on Jack, who is pushing four and eating a snake. A plastic snake. Blocking the door to the kitchen is Tiny, a Great Dane as large as a pony. Apparently, Tiny still has some growing to do. "Baby, in't you?" coos Iain, chucking her under the chin, oblivious to the ropes of saliva hanging from her jowls. Now Bracken, a chocolate Labrador in the pantry, yowls for attention. "She was hand-raised by Lisa," says Iain proudly. "Fed on the same milk as baby Jack, weren't you, Bracken? Human milk doesn't do them any harm at all."

Outside the back door is an area that would, for most people, be a nice little sun-trap with * plenty of room for a family barbecue. But for Lisa and Iain it is an ark, a field of beasts, a reptile kingdom and a Florida swamp. Under the gutter there is a warm-water pool teeming with piranhas, and a large redtail catfish (recently rescued from Tonbridge Wells). There is a paddling pool-size pond where, under the weeds, neat little terrapins have packed themselves away for winter. "The Mutant Ninja Turtles have a lot to answer for," sighs Iain. "There are probably abandoned terrapins called Michelangelo in every village pond from here to Brentwood. They're vicious little snappers, too - they'll take a coot down, no problem." In another corner is the ferret hutch and aviary. The residents include Boo, an owl with eyes like Anne Boleyn; Merlin, a shy Buzzard and car-crash survivor; and Turk, the turkey. "Saved him this Christmas," says Iain cheerfully, "from the mass carnage."

Next, Iain shows me his two cane toads, which were among the 60 animals that came to him "from a bloke who topped himself". As Iain holds the toads up to the camera delightedly, they belch piss all down his jacket, and he sighs "not again today", before calling them "little darlin'", stroking their warty heads and popping them back in their vivarium.

But before our tour of inspection is half-way complete, there's a ding-dong on the doorbell. It's the RSPCA, returning from a call they've just made to an evicted flat with a new consignment of refugees for Iain.

"Just what he needs, isn't it?" laughs Ruth, the RSPCA officer, holding out what appears to be a half-full sack of potatoes. But when Iain opens the sack it contains a tired, muscly golden snake. Iain picks it out gently, and looks it firmly in the face, eye-to-eye. Then he smiles. "Lovely," he says, then adds: "We've never turned an animal away yet. Never will."

The same afternoon, a call comes through from a family who are keen to adopt a snake from Iain. He is encouraging, yet also guarded. "You can come back to me when you've found out a little bit more about looking after pythons," he says. When he puts the phone down he pulls a sceptical face. "I have ten questions I need people to be able to answer before I know they are fit to adopt. If only pet shops were that strict."

Newby may soon get his wish. The RSPCA is supporting the Government's drafted amendment of the 1951 Pet Animals Act, which will make it an offence to sell a dangerous animal to anyone under 16.

Some of Iain's animals have come from extremely bad homes. He shows me his weakest specimen, a stunted cayman, which looks like an alligator but is little bigger than a violin. It is lying impassively under a sunlamp, next to a plastic flower. Its breathing is easily audible; it sounds like a tired old concertina. Shreds of chicken and lettuce have been put out for it in a terracotta feeding bowl, which, in a final indignity, is marked "Rabbit".

"This little one has lost a few toes," says Iain. "See? He was trafficked into an online cayman racing game. Internet betting via a webcam. I've still got the little racing jacket he was wearing when he was picked up."

Iain stalks off down the corridor, drawing himself up to full Saxon height. He pauses by a cage with an iguana in it. "This animal, called Alice," he says, sternly, "came to me with several burns and 12 broken bones. The only way * you can achieve that in an iguana is by throwing it against a hard surface repeatedly."

Does he ever give the people he confiscates animals from a piece of his mind? "No," he says. "No. Because if I started I might not stop."

We are out driving on the food run when Iain tells me his earliest memory. "Meeting Congola the chimp. I must have been three. My dad's there introducing us but my mother's over the other side of the room pointing a rifle at Congola's head." Iain spent his first years in Kruger National Park, South Africa, where his father was a head ranger. Then, when Iain was three, his mother died, and his father and he returned to the UK. His father ("6ft 7in tall, that kind of man") worked as keeper at Windsor Safari Park while Iain grew up in various homes and boarding schools.

But the summer holidays were different. "Dad used to run the killer whale show at Windsor. He'd ask all the children in the audience if they wanted to ride in the dinghy behind the killer, and they'd all wave their hands in the air. But he'd always pick the same little boy, and that was me, sitting in the front row. I did it every day for the whole summer. But then one day the dinghy tipped over. I remember being in the water thinking, I'm not sure I can swim very well. I got back in the boat all right. My father never let me do it again, though. That was that."

Iain lights a Sovereign cigarette. "I spent years at Aspinall's zoo, Howletts, and as head cat keeper at Twycross. I have 465 stitches on my body from those days." Does he ever feel vulnerable to the animals he looks after now? Iain narrows his eyes. "The day you think you know an animal inside out is the day they'll bite you."

With that, we arrive at our food run collection point, Marks & Spencers. "They very kindly give us a free pick of their out of date stuff for the animals," he says, bundling trays of Best End of Beef and Salmon Nigri into the back of his jeep. "Me and Lisa get the food we eat from Asda."

Iain and Lisa have been running Dwarf for seven years, during which time 2,500 animals have passed through their care. They rely on the help of one adult volunteer, Beverly, and two young lads. The Newbys have only had four days off in a whole year. But Iain loves the work. His face lights up when he tells me about his "police work", helping on a drugs raid. "You go in there, there's a man in handcuffs, policemen in bulletproof vests on either side of him. And there's a great big iguana in a cage, and" - his voice lowers - "inside the cage is where they've stashed the drugs. Most people are too scared to take on the iguana, see. Which is where I come in."

Back at the facility, I finally meet the kingpin of the Dwarf animal orphanage. It's Rolex, the alligator. He is lying by the side of his concrete pond, staring at the gaudy plastic foliage around him. "Look at him," says Iain. "He came over here to be a film star but he didn't make it. He was meant to be in the Indiana Jones movie." It is Iain's dream to be able to repatriate Rolex to Florida. "He wants to be out and about in the wild and the wetlands," he says. "He doesn't want to be in Great Wakering, Shoeburyness."

As well as its rescue activities, Dwarf is now putting together a website it hopes will become a national rescource centre for those looking after wild and exotic creatures. For more information, call 01702 219 472