Animal magnetism

Some of her earliest playmates were tiger cubs – so it’s no wonder that these big cats continue to exert a powerful influence on Charlotte Corney’s life

In fact, it was a tiger that led her to ditch her plans for university, and ultimately to take on the heavy mantle of Director at the Isle of Wight Zoo at the age of just 26.  Here, she talks to Jackie McCarrick about her unusual childhood, her passion for animals  – and her vision for the Zoo.

Charlotte was just three months old when her late father Jack Corney took what many would have viewed as a crazy decision: to uproot his young family from Manchester and decamp to the Isle of Wight, after buying a neglected old zoo at Sandown.

Construction engineer and long-time animal lover Jack had the idea of running the zoo as a hobby – but it didn’t quite work out that way, as he quickly discovered the reality of what he had taken on. In fact, the zoo had become so run-down that many of the animals were diseased or had behavioural problems, and had to be put to sleep.

Says Charlotte: “The last thing on my mum’s agenda, with two very young children (older sister Emma was aged two) was a dilapidated zoo on the Isle of Wight, but my dad had always had a fierce interest in the natural world and nature, and she was amazingly supportive of him”.

In fact Charlotte describes her mum Judith, who is now enjoying a well-earned retirement from the zoo, as “The most patient and tolerant individual I know”.

Whilst bringing up a baby and toddler, Judith also found herself with the job of raising tiger cubs, after Jack began re-stocking with animals from other zoos.

“In our heyday we had 22 tigers and 28 big cats in total, because my dad could never quite say ‘no’” recalls Charlotte.

All of which led to a childhood that was bound to be – as Charlotte now describes it –  “pretty eccentric”.

Walking with tigersIMG_2948

Iconic images of Jack Corney walking his tigers along Sandown beach are now the stuff of Island legend, but Charlotte’s childhood interactions with the big cats are no less amazing.

Sleeping with a tiger cub in her bed or sharing bath time with big cats was normal for her.  She also recalls carrying a cub onto the ferry in a rucksack.

In many ways it was an idyllic childhood and, certainly during her years at Ryde Convent, up to the age of 12, she enjoyed the natural curiosity and attention of her schoolmates, who loved having a pal whose dad owned a zoo.

It was a different story as she went into her teens, however, and moved to Bembridge School.

No longer among familiar people, she became aware of how other pupils saw it as “quite weird that my dad would pull up in an old Citroen 2CV with a tiger in the back!”

It meant she hated the first few months at her new school, although it didn’t take long for her to adapt and she ended up loving it.

Her unusual zoo-centric life continued to be “bitter-sweet”, however.

“There are times that were wonderfully memorable, growing up with the animals. There was always something young and fluffy and bitey to look after.

“But there were also lots of dark times because we were always on a knife-edge financially.

“After a zoo inspection my dad might come in with a face like thunder – there was always that threat of having to close down, so it was quite a volatile existence, an intense kind of world to be brought up in”.

This intensity was particularly difficult when Charlotte was in the sixth form and studying for exams.  She boarded at school during the week to make it easier to do her homework, but weekends were still fraught, so her dad bought her a £50 caravan as her private living space – although she still ended up boarding some lemurs in her bedroom!

At that time she was planning to go to university, and had chosen one in Scotland – one might say, pretty much as far away as she could get from the Island.

But the wily Jack Corney had other ideas – and promptly acquired a new tiger cub from Longleat, which he suggested that 19 year-old Charlotte should raise.

“My dad was a great strategist,” she laughs. “He knew that once I’d started raising Zia, I wouldn’t be going anywhere!”

Bonded for life

Zena-and-Zia--Isle-of-Wight-ZooCharlotte began sharing her caravan with Zia, and six months later, they were joined by the cub’s sister Zena, a white tiger.

“I really enjoyed living with Zia in the caravan – it was a way of getting away from all the madness”.

Not surprisingly, the unique bond that Charlotte has with Zia and Zena endures to this day, and she describes herself as utterly devoted to the 20 year-old tigers.

So much so that last November, she was forced at the last minute to cancel a long-anticipated trip to the Antarctic with her partner of nine years, the TV naturalist Chris Packham, after Zia fell ill.

Chris, who was making the trip to photograph penguins, seals, polar bears and whales, ended up having to go alone as Charlotte stayed back on the Island to nurse Zia through her illness.

“She was so ill that I really thought she was on her way out,” she says.  “She is the epicentre of my world, so for me to go away for three weeks would have been just unthinkable”.

Fortunately, partner Chris could empathise, despite being disappointed at not having Charlotte to travel with.

“Chris has two poodles that he feels the same about,” she says without a trace of irony.  “It’s something you just realise when you go into a relationship with an animal – you sign part of your life away”.

There aren’t many people, though, who will share Charlotte’s experience of living side by side with a jungle creature.

Indeed, some would even question if captivity is the right way for such animals to live.

“I perfectly understand that view” says Charlotte , “but I have to live with that dichotomy because at the moment, there is no alternative when it comes to species management.

“What’s most important is the individual exotic animals that have no future except in a human environment, and I feel comfortable with that”.

Call to the wild

Having said that, Charlotte describes how it almost broke her heart on her first night on a trip to India, when she heard a tiger calling in the wild.

“It was tough when I saw and heard them functioning as part of their natural system and it made me quite depressed.  The wild can be a very cruel and complex place, but in an ideal world it’s where they should be”.

However, in what is a far from ideal world, she reckons that tigers and other endangered species are, for now, reliant on zoos to guarantee against extinction.

Much like humans who live in the artificial environment of a city, she says that good zoos can offer animals a life that’s still “wholesome and valid”.

A generation on, Charlotte is, in many ways, a very different kind of zoo director from her father but, like him, she shares a strong sense of vocation. She lists ‘care, conservation and education’ as her three top priorities in running the operation.

The zoo hosts regular school visits and informal educational tours, and funds conservation projects in India and Madagascar, as well as supporting local conservation initiatives like that of the Island’s Reddish Buff Moth – just to show it’s not all about jungle creatures.

With her global view of conservation, Charlotte has visited Sumatra with Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and the Tiger Protection Conservation Unit (TPCU) which operates in the Kerinci Seblat National Park.

There, she joined a team trekking through the rainforest, removing vicious snares set up to catch tigers and their prey.

This year (Zia allowing!) she plans to do other trips with Chris to Sri Lanka, the Gambia, and Papua New Guinea  – all supporting animals in their natural habitats.

Like father like daughter

IMG_2945Her late father, she says, had a ‘more simplistic’ view of what animals need, and she admits that in some of their views, they found themselves at odds.

“I have so much respect for him and always will – but it was probably borderline insane the way he went about aspects of his work! He never saw the problems, he was just always very can-do”.

After Jack suffered a number of strokes and it became clear that Charlotte would have to take over the zoo, she says there was a difficult period of re-adjustment.

“We met on many levels but were polar opposites on some.  I was taking over, and it was all very tricky for a while. I had periods of wanting to break away, but I’d ask myself if I could ever leave Zia and Zena and the answer was no, so I stuck with it.  Those animals have always anchored me”.

She says the main similarity between herself and her father has been their desire to connect people to the animals.

“Our approach nowadays is a bit more sophisticated, with more formalised programmes for learning – for starters, I don’t jump in snake pits like my dad did!

“It may all be a lot less sensationalist now, but at the heart of everything that both of us have done, is always care for the animals”.

Another thing Charlotte has experienced in common with her father is the constant battle to juggle the financing of the zoo.

“Funding is tough,” she says.  “Then there’s more legislation, more regulations and the zoo is just a very complex organism with its retail, catering, marketing and education departments, quite apart from day to day care of the animals.  It may be a small zoo, but there’s always a huge amount to do”.

That’s why Charlotte is currently going through the legal process of setting up the zoo as a charity, headed by a robust Board of Trustees.

Currently the zoo depends totally on through-the-gate takings and occasional donations, and charity status will open the possibility of more funding opportunities, to support further development.

She also sees the zoo as being ‘unhealthily dependent’ on her and says that by handing over to a charity, she might also free up a bit of time for herself – to pursue non zoo-related activities such as pottery.

“I would also like to see the staff (15 in winter and up to 40 in summer) better renumerated for their efforts.  They all work so hard and are incredibly committed, I think because they feel a real sense of belonging to the zoo and believe in our cause”.

For herself, it should mean being able to flex her time more easily around life on the Island and in the New Forest with Chris. More overseas travel, both recreationally and work related is also on her agenda.

“There’s no doubt that my role in the future will change,” says Charlotte, although, not surprisingly, she adds:  “But while Zia and and Zena are still here, there’s no way I am going far away for long! I’m really excited about the zoo’s future – there is much left to achieve”.

She adds: “The animals have taken up all my focus for my whole life so far – but I can honestly say that if I died tomorrow, I would feel that my life to date had been totally validated”.