Questions mount over Jackson animal kingdom

By AFP

June 18, 2010 Updated Jun 29, 2009 at 8:17 AM EST

Besides leaving a musical legacy, Michael Jackson orphaned an array of exotic pets with some of them unaccounted for and even his beloved chimpanzee Bubbles depending on donations.

In what was once seen mostly as a harmless eccentricity, Jackson at the height of stardom amassed a private zoo of giraffes, tigers and other foreign animals at Neverland, his sprawling fantasy estate in California.

Nearly all of the animals have been moved to new homes in the past few years as Jackson's personal and financial woes worsened, with animal rights activists saying some have become roadside attractions in uncertain conditions.

Bubbles, once the world's best known ape who slept in the superstar's bedroom and mastered his Moonwalk dance, has lived since 2005 at the Center for Great Apes in Florida, the head of the sanctuary said.

Jackson did not provide financial support for Bubbles and, despite his stated desire, never visited him there, said Patti Ragan, director of the Center for Great Apes.

"To this date, all donations for his care have come from the Center for Great Ape?s supporters. We depend on donations in order to care for all our animals in need," she said.

An image of Bubbles on the center's website appeals to the public to make donations to care for him and other residents of the sanctuary, designed to provide a natural environment for apes who had been used as performers or pets.

The website, which does not directly mention Bubbles' famous former guardian, described the chimp as having a "broad, handsome face and a lot of charima."

Ragan estimated it cost 16,000 dollars a year to care for each ape, who usually live to be at least 50 years old.

Jackson rescued Bubbles from a Texas medical laboratory where he was bought by Bob Dunn, a Hollywood animal trainer. Jackson returned Bubbles to Dunn after the singer had children, who risk being injured by a large chimp.

Dunn, contacted by AFP, declined comment, saying he was negotiating a deal to speak publicly about Bubbles. The Florida center said Dunn handed to it Bubbles and all his other apes in 2005 when he exited the business.

Dunn was quoted as telling Britain's News of the World tabloid that Jackson thought of Bubbles as "his first child" and regularly visited while Bubbles was in Dunn's California preserve.

While Bubbles remains high-profile, animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said it was hard to track down most of Jackson's former pets.

Lisa Wathne, PETA's specialist in captive exotic animals, voiced particular concern about two of Jackson's orangutans sent to a private owner in Connecticut and reptiles at a roadside zoo in Oklahoma.

She said Jackson's case showed why wild animals should not be kept as pets.

"All too often even people who start with good intentions, as Michael Jackson certainly did, don't have the ability to properly care for these animals," she said.

"And unfortunately in Michael Jackson's case he did apparently run into financial problems that ultimately led to his animals being disbursed to places all over the world. We don't know, frankly, where most of them ended up."

PETA in January 2006 complained to US authorities that animals were being mistreated in Neverland. The authorities inspected the estate's menagerie but found no evidence of abuse or neglect.

Jackson's two tigers, Thriller and Sabu, were taken in at a sanctuary in California run by former actress Tippi Hedren.

The Voices of the Wild Foundation, which runs an animal preserve in Arizona, adopted Jackson's four giraffes along with reptiles and exotic birds. But PETA says the conditions were too cramped for giraffes.

Director Freddie Hancock appealed to Jackson fans to send donations in his memory so that the preserve can adopt more animals.

Hancock had nothing but praise for Jackson, saying he maintained "beautiful facilities" for the animals in Neverland.

"I think he just loved animals. And when you're an individual who loves animals, the animals know that," Hancock said.




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