“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 remembers. “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 placing it mildly. In ITV’s Searching for Michael Jackson’s Zoo with Ross Kemp, McDevitt and the former EastEnders hardman got down to observe down all the animals Jackson purchased for his Neverland zoo and, alongside the approach, uncovered a path of freaks that makes Tiger King’s Joe Exotic seem like a gentle mannered wildlife fanatic.
From Mark Biancaniello, a former Neverland zoo coach, who describes Jackson as an exemplary proprietor of animals who would by no means abandon his pets (whilst he remembers Jackson successfully abandoning his pets), via the bizarrely comedian Rob Swinson, dubbed Maker of Dreams by Jackson, who bursts into tears as quickly as the interview begins and continues to sob all through, to the rich 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 attributable to sub-zero temperatures and “improper feeding”.
At its top, Jackson’s Neverland ranch housed a minimum of 50 totally different species of animals, together with giraffes, elephants and tigers, and their whereabouts have been largely unknown since the singer’s demise 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.”