Ulster's law of the jungle puts big cats in the firing line

David McKittrick on the unlikely victims of the collapse of the IRA ceasefire
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The Independent Online
A rescue operation has been launched in an attempt to save animals whose lives have been placed at risk by the threatened closure of a safari park in Northern Ireland.

The park, which houses lions, tigers, chimpanzees and other animals, is struggling financially following a disastrous summer when takings were drastically reduced by the breakdown of the IRA ceasefire and the Drumcree Orange march stand-off.

It is said that closure would mean most of the animals would have to be put down, since the lions are territorial and there is little demand from other parks and zoos for the animals.

The Causeway safari park is situated in North Antrim, close to the Giant's Causeway, and in one of Northern Ireland's more popular tourist areas. The number of visitors to the area from the Irish Republic and elsewhere increased markedly following the IRA ceasefire in 1994.

The park employs three full-time staff, together with around 40 workers during the summer season. Its future was placed in question earlier this week with a Customs and Excise High Court action for non- payment of VAT. The Official Receiver is now involved.

The park's director, Jim Garvin, said: "The animals cannot be moved from the park if it closes. Lions are territorial and most of the other animals have been born and raised in the park. Their natural hunting instincts have therefore gone.

"We are hoping that it will not have to close if some rescue package can be obtained. In the meantime, the receivers have assured us that the animals will be looked after.

"For the past three months, we have been feeding the animals out of our own pockets. Our priorities are to protect them and the considerable seasonable employment which the park provides."

His wife, Coral, added: "The lions are all in families, they're all in prides and groups, and you couldn't split them up."

Davy Leggett, who has been a keeper at the park for the last 26 years, said: "The park is my livelihood but more importantly it is a hobby.

"The animals are like children to me, and if they had to be put down because the park closed, it would be just like losing a close relation."

There is, however, some interest in the park's most notorious inhabitant, Peter the smoking chimp. A zoo is said to be considering taking him.

The local council and a number of other organisations, together with the North Antrim MP, the Rev Ian Paisley, are now involved in discussions on finding ways of saving the park.