Inside 'animal lover' Michael Jackson's zoo – from Giraffes set on fire, elephants whipped and chimp Bubbles beaten

LIKE millions around the world, I was a fan of Michael Jackson’s music – I still am, I suppose, because I can separate the artist from the art.

At his height, it was not just the music that made him a huge star, it was people’s fascination with his lifestyle.

And a major component of that was the huge zoo at his Neverland ranch in California, which I investigate in a new ITV documentary. 

As I try to find out what became of the late singer’s many animals, I come face-to-face with a three-ton elephant he once owned.

And then I find myself on a radio station in Utah putting a shout out for information on the whereabouts of his two remaining pet giraffes.

Their last owners had fled a desert town under the cover of night after accusing city officials of poisoning the other two they owned.


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Everyone remembers Bubbles the chimpanzee who was brought to Press conferences and featured in the Thriller star’s music videos.

But there were well over a hundred more Jackson animals at any given time — lions, tigers, bears, reptiles. He had them all. 

7ft brown bears eating ice cream

When the pop star left Neverland after his acquittal on child molestation charges in 2005 and moved to the Middle East, he also left his zoo. He later returned to the US and died of a heart attack in 2009 after taking a variety of sedatives.

Very little is known about the animals’ whereabouts since 2005 and I was curious to discover what happened to the most famous private collection in the world. It is very likely some of his pets are still alive.

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The problem with finding anything out was that many of their handlers at Neverland had signed non-disclosure agreements, meaning that they were unlikely to talk to me.

Yet, some did, including Mark Biancaniello, a trainer at the 2,700-acre ranch that Jackson called home for nigh on quarter of a century. 

What he told me immediately concerned me in light of the popular notion that the singer was a lover of animals.

He talked about 7ft brown bears taught to ride in bumper cars and golf carts while eating ice creams. 

Nevertheless, Mark described Jackson as an exemplary pet owner and Neverland as a kind of Noah’s Ark for rescued animals.

Others who knew Jackson and were willing to talk followed.

One was the singer’s friend and personal portrait artist, David Nordahl, who told me that a giraffe called Jabaar died after a barn door had been left open and a gust of wind slammed it on him, breaking his neck.

A search through old news archives revealed that years before, law enforcement officers had visited Neverland and found that Jabaar was being kept in a pen far too small for what a giraffe needs. Another two of Jackson’s giraffes died in a barn fire.

I had set out on this journey with an open mind, but once a tragedy, twice a farce, as the saying goes.

Surely, if one of your pet giraffes dies prematurely and then another two, you would start to wonder if you were the best person to take care of those complex creatures.

Jabaar’s offspring did not fare much better. When Jackson left Neverland, many of the animals were either sold to other private collectors or rehomed in sanctuaries and zoos across the country.

Jabaar’s four descendents were bought by a couple called the Hancocks, who had little experience of caring for wild animals.

In Arizona, I met a former cop called Ben Jennett who had been involved in dealing with numerous complaints about the pair.

I discovered that Jackson purchased two infant elephants from a convicted drug dealer in South Africa called Riccardo Ghiazza, who was later found guilty of animal cruelty.

First, the Hancocks housed them in a cramped boat storage facility in a stall next to three tigers and several venomous snakes, which seemed very cruel to me.

Then, I was told, they moved them to a hilltop in the barren desert where temperatures sink below zero. Unsurprisingly, two of them froze to death.

Neverland trainer Mark had told me that all of Jackson’s animals went to good homes, but the Hancocks seemed like dreadful custodians.

As one of the couple’s former employees told me: “They were just trophies so they could tell everyone they owned Neverland animals.’”

At that moment, I was reminded that people in the public eye are influencers — others follow their lead and copy their behaviours — and I wondered how many others had started their own private animal collections after being inspired by Jackson.

Mark had also insisted that Jackson rescued his animals from circuses that had mistreated and abused them.

This certainly was not true of them all and there was a great deal of mistreatment once they were at Neverland, according to several people I spoke to for the programme.

I discovered that Jackson purchased two infant elephants from a convicted drug dealer in South Africa called Riccardo Ghiazza, who was later found guilty of animal cruelty.

He would starve the elephants and deprive them of water in order to tame them and sell them to private collectors like Michael Jackson.

Perhaps most cruel of all, Ghiazza beat the elephants with bullhooks, sharp metal sticks that have now been banned in several American states.

I was shocked when I scrolled through never-before-seen archive from inside Neverland that showed Ali and Baba, Jackson’s elephants, having bullhooks used on them.

They were also chained in shackles inside their barns. Elephants roam tens of miles per day and they suffer serious psychological damage when tamed by this method.

Baba is now owned by one of the elephant trainers from Neverland and when he agreed to meet me, I asked him why he used a bullhook on these intelligent creatures.

He expressed regret at practices in the past and, to be fair, we know a lot more now about the suffering of animals in captivity than we did then.

Still, there was a wealth of information in the 1990s about best practice for keeping wild animals and it seems obvious to me that Jackson, despite advertising himself as a conservationist, did not care to seek it out or simply ignored it.

When someone as celebrated and respected as chimp expert Jane Goodall tells you that you are mistreating your animals, maybe you should listen.

Jane visited Neverland and told Jackson that his enclosures were too small and that it was wrong to separate infant animals from their mothers.

She was aghast when the singer told her that his supposedly beloved pet chimpanzee Bubbles was beaten and thrown across rooms when he was misbehaving.

Any lingering notion that Jackson was oblivious to all of this mistreatment evaporated.

This programme is not just about Michael Jackson. The megastar is a looking glass through which we can see the whole world’s uncomfortable relationship with wild animals.

I do not see it as a coincidence that the worldwide boom in the private ownership of exotic animals, now worth £230billion a year, really began to grow when Jackson moved to Neverland.

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There is little doubt that Michael Jackson appeared to love his animals but it seems, like others, he did not fully understand the responsibility that comes with owning them.

  • Searching For Michael Jackson’s Zoo With Ross Kemp is on ITV on Wednesday at 9pm.

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