Bullhooks, beatings and a trail of dead animals: the reality of Michael Jackson's Neverland zoo

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Michael Jackson with Bubbles the chimpanzee and a llama - Shutterstock/Sipa
Michael Jackson with Bubbles the chimpanzee and a llama - Shutterstock/Sipa

“In the video for Earth Song, Michael Jackson brings culled elephants back to life in the Serengeti – he revives the elephants, and their tusks grow back,” documentary producer Johnny McDevitt recalls. “About a year before that, he’d bought two elephants, Ali and Baba, sourced from a convicted drug dealer and animal torturer in South Africa. They’d witnessed their herd being culled, the guy had used a bullhook – an instrument of torture – deprived them of water and food, and beaten them into submission so they could be sent across the world to Jackson’s ranch.” McDevitt pauses. “This is not consistent with the way he depicted himself as an animal lover.”

That is putting it mildly. In ITV’s Searching for Michael Jackson’s Zoo with Ross Kemp, McDevitt and the former EastEnders hardman set out to track down all the animals Jackson bought for his Neverland zoo and, along the way, uncovered a trail of freaks that makes Tiger King’s Joe Exotic look like a mild mannered wildlife enthusiast.

From Mark Biancaniello, a former Neverland zoo trainer, who describes Jackson as an exemplary owner of animals who would never abandon his pets (even as he recalls Jackson effectively abandoning his pets), through the bizarrely comic Rob Swinson, dubbed Maker of Dreams by Jackson, who bursts into tears as soon as the interview begins and continues to sob throughout, to the wealthy couple Tom and Freddie Hancock, who owned Banjoko Wildlife Preserve, a pseudo-sanctuary in Page, Arizona, and let two of Jackson’s giraffes die in 2010 due to sub-zero temperatures and “improper feeding”.

At its height, Jackson’s Neverland ranch housed at least 50 different species of animals, including giraffes, elephants and tigers, and their whereabouts have been largely unknown since the singer’s death in 2009. “I’m not sure the programme really underlines how difficult it was to find these animals,” McDevitt explains. “There’s no centralised database or anything that requires you to have a licence.”

Ross Kemp in Los Angeles with former Neverland zoo trainer Mark Biancaniello - Rare TV Ltd
Ross Kemp in Los Angeles with former Neverland zoo trainer Mark Biancaniello - Rare TV Ltd

With most ex-employees still gagged by NDAs, it’s easy to assume it’s only the publicity hounds who were willing to talk. But McDevitt – who produced Britain’s Tiger Kings, Kemp’s 2021 take on British exotic-animal owners – puts it down to the libertarian attitudes of Americans. “People there are more forthright and less cagey if you’ll excuse the pun,” he says. And this balance of pun and horror is the tightrope the show walks, largely successfully.

Kemp’s performance treads a careful path between outright cynicism and justifiable outrage as the discoveries get darker along the way. Often given to a more declamatory style, in Zoo Kemp lets his raised eyebrows do the talking, whether facing the blubbing Swinson or the seen-it-all Arizona ex-cop.

“It was necessary for Ross to keep a poker face – but he did enter into this with an open mind,” McDevitt explains. “For a music star who portrayed himself as a child in a man’s body and with the things he said about animals: ‘How could anyone ever hurt an animal? It would be like hurting a small child…’ Did he know [about the mistreatment of the animals]? Could he be excused? It didn’t take long for me to see that as a fallacy, but Ross was circumspect about coming to that conclusion too readily.”

The Hancocks are easy to mock – they collected Jackson’s animals as they would a Ferrari, one local eccentric explains. Once the local council banned them from running the park in the wake of the giraffe deaths, the animals vanished. Conspiracy theories around Page included the animals being donated to a Native American tribe in Nevada or smuggled onto a secretive Mormon compound. The truth, as we see in the documentary, is sadder still.

Kemp’s anger starts to rise in the second half of the show, with an abrupt change in mood as they try to find the elephants, Ali and Baba. “The elephants and the giraffes have the longest lifespans,” McDevitt explains. “Properly looked after, they’re the ones who should still be alive.”

Ross Kemp with elephant trainer Josh and Baba the elephant - Rare TV Ltd
Ross Kemp with elephant trainer Josh and Baba the elephant - Rare TV Ltd

Brutal footage unearthed from Neverland – where all filming was banned but fragments have leaked – show a trainer beating the now fully grown elephants with another bullhook over seven minutes of agonising film.

McDevitt and Kemp tracked the elephant handler down – living off-grid in a forest with one of the elephants as a pet. There’s a real menace to the moment they effectively trick him into talking. “It was a very difficult conversation until we showed him the footage and pictures of the elephants in shackles in Neverland,” McDevitt explains. “He came the closest of everyone to some kind of penitence. I respected him for being candid. He made the point that back in the Nineties we didn’t know as much as we do today about the neurological damage caused to animals in captivity and he did convey some kind of regret about the elephants.”

McDevitt’s real ire – and Kemp’s in the programme – is reserved for Jackson himself. “Michael Jackson was a perfectionist with his music,” he explains. “His employees said he did due diligence on his animals, that he had time to research the ancillary parts of his life. He knew who he was buying Ali and Baba from. Could it be plausible that this billionaire of a star with a huge staff could be so busy that he overlooked the details of animal husbandry?”

The answer comes from primatologist Jane Goodall, who tells the grim tale of Bubbles, Jackson’s fabled chimpanzee pet. She went to visit Jackson and told him the way he was treating his animals – especially his chimps - was terrible. “We asked her, ‘Did he care?’” says McDevitt. “She said no.”

Now that most of Jackson’s animals have passed – usually in miserable circumstances – McDevitt notes the singer’s influence on stars and millionaires owning animals as status symbols persists. In 2019, singer Chris Brown was ordered to give up a pet capuchin monkey he bought for his daughter and to cough up a $35,000 fine to pay for its future care. Brown was inspired by Michael Jackson’s love for Bubbles, he told the court.

“You can’t conclude that Jackson loved those animals,” McDevitt shrugs, then pauses. “I suppose it depends what your definition of love is. Jackson’s view of love is open to question.”

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