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Big Bother For Big Brother

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 Concern.

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 their voice.

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 Secretary.

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 Prosecutor.

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 animals.

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?

To learn more about Animal Concern Advice Line you can visit their website at: http://adviceaboutanimals.org/