A small charity took on Celebrity Big Brother and
won a victory for endangered animals. Animal Concern Advice Line (ACAL)
was formed by the Directors of Animal Concern in 2000 and granted charity
status in 2001. An organisation in its own right, it has taken over the
public advisory and assistance work formerly carried out by Animal
To learn more about Animal Concern Advice Line you can visit their
John Robins explains how ACAL got Big Brother into big bother.
On 11th January 2006 I received some calls on the ACAL phone
from members of the public complaining about someone wearing a gorilla
skin in the UK Celebrity Big Brother House. This show is broadcast just
about all day on one of the few channels which is not all about showing
you how to redesign your house for 55p and how to sell your granny at a
car boot sale to raise the money.
I tuned into Celebrity Big Brother and could not find a celebrity or a
big brother. There were three people I recognised: Rula Lenska from 70’s
TV show Rock Follies, Michael Barrymore who used to host games shows and
MP George Galloway who, like me, once stood against Roy Jenkins at an
election in Glasgow. I am not sure what the show is about because almost
every time someone opens their mouth a censorship sound track drowns out
Then I saw the reason for the complaints. A guy called Pete Burns, who
is a celebrity for cross-dressing and having facial surgery, was wearing
a black-and-white furry coat which he claimed was made of real gorilla
skin. He was goading his fellow so-called celebrities who criticised him
for wearing fur.
The people who phoned ACAL wanted to know what could be done. As the
gorilla is on Annex A of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) list it is a criminal
offence to own a gorilla skin which you cannot prove was imported into
the UK before 1947. This is a serious offence for which you can receive
a heavy fine and/or go to jail for up to 5 years.
Rather than duplicate effort I checked to see what the authorities and
major anti-fur and wildlife protection organisations were doing. The
authorities were doing nothing and the only thing coming out of the
groups were requests to supporters to call the show’s premium rate phone
and text numbers to vote Burns out of the house.
I did not think it a good idea to generate lots of extra income for the
programme makers. I was also angry that the authorities were ignoring a
serious criminal act and treating the Big Brother House as some sort of
out of bounds diplomatic embassy instead of the set of a cheap, nasty
and exploitative TV show.
The people who could do something were the CITES enforcement office at
the Government Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA),
the police and Trading Standards at the local Council. Trading Standards
were not much help as the only contact Hertfordshire Council would give
was a telephone number answered by a nice teuchter at a call centre in
the Outer Hebrides. He could have helped had I bought a can of beans
which was one short but gorilla skin coats were not on his script. The
guy at CITES enforcement at DEFRA was a bit laid back and did not seem
keen on doing anything.
On 11th January I discovered Hertfordshire Police covered the
Elstree Studios where the programme is based so, at 15.40 hrs, I asked
them to intervene and take immediate action as a criminal offence was
being committed under their noses. My complaint was forwarded to their
local Area Crime Group. They did nothing.
On 12th January, Jim Knight, Government Minister for
Biodiversity and the person responsible for ensuring Britain maintains
CITES laws, stated; "Gorilla skins belong
on gorillas, not on reality TV show contestants."
Minister Knight had no shining armour with which to protect endangered
animals. He didn’t actually do anything.
On 15th January I once again asked the police to take
action even if only to show they take seriously laws protecting
wildlife. Nothing happened.
On 17th January I asked our supporters to complain directly
to the police and DEFRA, urging them to drop the doughnuts and get a
warrant to take action against Mr. Burns.
On 18th January the police replied saying they “…
would just like to reassure you that having
received other formal complaints from members of the public, we are
already looking into this matter and am sure our findings will be made
public in due course.”.
Later that day I asked people to write back to the police stating: ““With
respect looking into this matter is not good enough. When dealing with a
possible serious breach of criminal law I expect the police to take
action instead of just looking into the matter. If they had Class A
drugs in the house I am sure you would have acted differently.” I
also asked folk to copy their e-mails to their MPs and the Home
On 19th January Hertfordshire police finally acted. They
asked the programme makers to hand over the coat. It was quietly removed
from the studio set and given to the police for tests. It was all done
secretly and nothing was broadcast to let the public know what had
happened. Obviously it is OK to let someone boast to the nation that he
is wearing an endangered species but not a good idea to let people know
that endangered animals have legal protection, even if it takes over a
week of pressure to force the authorities to implement those laws.
On 20th January the coat was identified as being made from
the skins of colobus monkeys and a report was sent to the Crown
ACAL have contacted the Prosecutor stating: “ It is our belief that
as colobus monkeys are an endangered species protected under Annex A of
CITES, the import, trading and ownership of products (other than those
documented to have been made prior to 1947) made from the skins of
colobus monkeys is prohibited under criminal law.
We ask you to take urgent action on this case as for nearly two weeks
Mr. Burns, by wearing this garment in the Big Brother House and boasting
that it was made from “gorilla skin” (another CITES protected endangered
species), has given the impression that contravention of CITES is a
minor matter instead of very serious criminal exploitation of rare
Taking action while the Big Brother show is still broadcasting would
ensure that many people are made aware that CITES regulations and the
protection of rare animals are taken seriously in the UK. It would also
emphasise that so-called celebrities cannot flout the law or hide from
reality within the studio set of a reality TV show.”
We will now have to wait to see if CITES laws are going to be
properly enforced or not. Meantime we should be asking why it took a
tiny telephone advice line based in Scotland to get some action. What
were Jim Knight and DEFRA playing at?
Why did Hertfordshire Council not
take action? Do Hertfordshire police take CITES seriously? Where were
the big, wealthy fur and wildlife charities and pressure groups while
all this was going on?