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Rhesus Park on the Telly
Rhesus Park is no stranger to the small screen, making numerous appearances on When Animals Attack, You’ve Been Framed, Watchdog and Channel 5’s The World’s Most Dangerous Zoo Animals.
ITV News Central and BBC Shropshire also regularly feature Rhesus Park in their news bulletins, although the Beeb have boycotted us since 2008, when two gorillas hurled excrement at BBC Breakfast reporter Jenny Hill during a live feed as she reported on the birth of our latest furry addition.
The global media also take a keen interest in Rhesus Park’s affairs and we featured on reports in 35 different countries at the launch of Operation Yewtree due to our past links with Sir Jimmy Saville. Since those scurrilous rumours abated, news crews from further afield have been a rare sight at Rhesus Park, although we did recently feature on Indian TV when one of our macaques took such a shine to a tourist from Mumbai that he clung to his head and ended up travelling back to Asia with him. Footage of this heart-warming story can be found below:
Due to our open-minded and diverse recruitment policy, our keepers have also made appearances on British prime-time TV, the most famous example being Clemente Kurva’s battle with investigative reporter Roger Cook.
After deciding to tackle soldiers of fortune as his latest crusade in 1994, Cook shone the spotlight on Clemente’s involvement in the Yugoslavian War, where he fought for the Serbs, Croatians and Bosnians at different junctures over a two-year period while taking annual leave from his duties at Rhesus Park.
Despite Clemente insisting that he wasn’t guilty of any war crimes, Cook was relentless in his pursuit of our head keeper and finally made him take a lie detector test on camera. Clemente was subjected to the trademark under-the-belt blows that gained Cook such notoriety as he was questioned about his sexual peccadilloes, which included sunbathing naked and writing pornographic letters.
Despite these attempts to rile Clemente and influence the test, he passed with flying colours, infuriating Cook. He still refused to accept our man’s innocence, making snide remarks about Clemente refusing to take a truth serum and undergo hypnosis, but the watching public weren’t too be fooled.
The joust with Cook was one of the TV highlights of 1994, with critic Hugo Lorentis from the Daily Mail describing it as “this generation’s Frost v Nixon, although this time it was the interviewee who proudly stood over the weeping, cowering figure he had just vanquished”.
You can view this classic programme below:
Clemente isn't the only Rhesus Park keeper to have featured on TV as the heartwarming story of how Big Shuggie Rough became Clementine Rough, our beloved chimpanzee keeper, recently attracted the attention of Channel 5.
This subject was handled with the grace and dignity one has come expect from Channel 5 in their popular documentary Genderbenders, which aired in March 2015. Clementine's story caused something of a storm as Ofcom received 1000 complaints about the footage which showed her going under the knife. One angry letter was also sent directly to us at Rhesus Park, claiming the "gorefest I witnessed when this freak was cut open and fiddled about with has put me off pasta for life"
You can judge for yourself by watching the video below:
Rhesus Park in Scud Flicks
If you ever get a sense of shameful déjà vu while strolling around Rhesus Park, it’s probably down the fact we have provided the backdrop to countless pornographic films and photoshoots.
Due to CEO David Alsatian’s close business links with Stroker Media, which is run by his cousin Michael Stroker, we regularly allow adult movie directors access to the park when they want to shoot outdoor scenes away from prying eyes.
While most of these shoots take place on a Monday, when Rhesus Park is closed for business, we have on occasion allowed smut to be filmed during opening hours. This led to a regrettable incident in 2009 when a school party from Barnstable walked into an enclosure expecting to see some ring-tailed lemurs and were instead treated to the sight of a lesbian three-way which was building to a spectacular crescendo. However, the resultant cost of the civil suit filed by the school for emotional damages, £13,000, was far outweighed by the £25,000 cheque Stroker Media had handed over for a day’s hire of the enclosure.
Rhesus Park has provided Stroker Media with some its most memorable footage and we are the only animal attraction in Europe to boast a prize from the Adult Movie Awards after Primal Urges XI won the accolade of Best Outdoor Scene in 2012.
Other notable scud flicks to be filmed at Rhesus Park include: The Beast With Two Backs, Animal Attraction, Stud Farm, Dong With The Wind IV, Latina Ass Parade, The Gape Outdoors, Bukkake Bonzana 9 and Howlers 4, 5 and 6.
On the magazine stand
In August 2015, respected business magazine Big Beast Business came to Rhesus Park to interview David Alsatian. Here is Amy Fotheringham's insightful article, which sheds further light on the complex individual who runs the shows here...
As he leans back in his luxurious oak chair and surveys the majesty of his simian empire from above, David Alsatian bears the look of a man totally at peace with the world. Yet look deeper behind the piercing blue eyes of the Rhesus Park chief executive and a different story emerges, that of a man who has been forced to shoulder a thousand burdens in both his personal and business pursuits.
Transforming what was once derided as “Britain’s most notorious animal attraction” into the modern, thriving business it is today would have crushed a weaker character yet Alsatian somehow managed to negotiate every hurdle that was thrown in his path.
That he did so while engaged in a stormy and ultimately doomed romance with a celebrity he refuses to unmask – ‘let’s just say she’s a household name’ is all Alsatian is prepared to divulge – marks this 47-year-old down as a man of even stronger character. Such fortitude was necessary in his first few weeks as Rhesus Park CEO in November 1994, a job Alsatian applied for just three weeks after finishing his MBA at Edge Hill University in Omskirk.
“I was only 26 at the time, so maybe it was the impetuousness of youth,” says Alsatian when asked to reflect on why he applied for such a high office so soon after graduation. “But I prefer to view it as providence, a higher power guiding me towards my true calling. After all, I had no idea about the awful events that ultimately ensured my application would be accepted.”
This is the first of many references Alsatian makes to Black Thursday during the course of our 90-minute chat, a tragedy that still casts a dark shadow over this leafy and salubrious part of Shropshire. That was the day when 22 primary school children stepped through the gates of Rhesus Park and just one returned to the safety of his home, albeit via a two-year stay in a psychiatric hospital. Watching a troop of enraged baboons rip 21 kids limb from limb after being mistakenly released from their enclosure at feeding time proved far too traumatic for Alsatian’s predecessor Larry Holstein. He tendered his resignation via a bullet just 10 minutes after the last victim, a nine-year-old girl called Vanessa Boyle, was pronounced dead at Royal Shrewsbury Hospital.
For the next week or so, Rhesus Park was headline news. Yet the man who would eventually set about trying to repair a reputation every bit as damaged as the corpses of those tragic school children remained oblivious to its dark recent history. “When I graduated from university, I celebrated by heading off to Corfu for a fortnight,” recalls Alsatian. “When you’re drinking Ouzo from shot glasses stuffed in the deepest recesses of a barmaid’s cleavage, the last thing on your mind is keeping up with the news back home. So when I applied for the job at Rhesus Park I genuinely had no idea what I was stepping into. I never thought I stood a chance of landing the job, I was braced for what I thought would be the first of many rejection letters.”
Given that nobody else would even contemplate picking up the poisoned chalice of taking charge at Rhesus Park, it was in fact a letter of acceptance that landed on Alsatian’s doormat. Excitement mingled with trepidation as he read through the letter in his slippers and dressing gown, although the latter emotion soon came to prominence as Alsatian belatedly began his homework on Rhesus Park.
“To be honest, I was amazed they hadn’t shut the place down after such a horrendous tragedy,” recalls Alsatian. “With the local community harbouring such a vicious grudge against us, the chances of being successful were slim. I also had to hire a completely new staff. Everyone who had worked here before was too traumatised to continue. The only exception, thankfully, was Clemente. If he had left as well then I don’t think I would be sitting here today talking to you about our miraculous resurrection.”
While Alsatian acts as the Rhesus Park figurehead, he has no hesitation in admitting that the beating heart of his empire is head keeper Clemente Kurva. As a former enforcer for the StB, Czechoslovakia’s secret police, Kurva had become so inured to violence that even the brutal events of Black Thursday couldn’t shake him. Resolute and thick-skinned, he was the ideal ally for Alsatian as they set about plotting Rhesus Park’s future.
“Clemente was my rock in the early days,” says Alsatian. “I was naïve and inexperienced so I needed a firm hand to guide me. There were times when I felt like throwing in the towel but Clemente was always there to stop me. He was my drill sergeant in many ways, pushing me harder and harder until I was ready for the business battlefield.”
Had Alsatian played by the rules when he finally did begin to wage war on his competitors, it’s doubtful Rhesus Park would have continued to operate for more than a couple of months. So he decided to opt for more unconventional methods, inspired by mentor Kurva’s experience of real-life conflicts as a part-time soldier of fortune.
“Some of our competitors have described our actions as ‘business terrorism’ but we prefer the phrase ‘gorilla warfare’,” says Alastian. “In the animal kingdom, aggression is used to assert your dominance. Why should it be any different in the kingdom of animal entertainment?”
This aggression has put Alsatian in the dock, both metaphorically and literally, several times yet he remains proud of the fact Rhesus Park has never been successful prosecuted. “We can hold our heads high,” he insists. “While our practices may rub people up the wrong way, we take great care to ensure they don’t stray into the territory of criminality.”
Many of those in the industry would dispute that claim, with one source who asked to remain anonymous referring to them as “thugs who share almost every characteristic with their filthy apes”. When this is put to Alsatian, though, he scoffs at the suggestion he is head of a Simian Cosa Nostra, even though he actually employs a former member of the Sicilian Mafia in the shape of infamous informant Sal Pardesi. “If you want to hear chilling tales of violence then talk to Sal about his former employers,” Alsatian said. “Do you think the Italian government would have sent him here for their witness protection scheme if they suspected we were another immoral cabal?”
If the legality of Rhesus Park’s methods remains in doubt, their success can’t be questioned. After a sticky spell for the first five years of his reign, with the wounds of Black Thursday still festering, visitor numbers have risen every year for the last decade.
“Instead of shying away from the stigma of Black Thursday, we decided to embrace our notoriety,” explains Alsatian. “Most zoos usually kill any animals guilty of attacking visitors but we decided to make them the star attraction instead. We positioned ourselves as the bad boys of the industry and turned all the negative publicity to our favour. One tabloid branded us ‘the UK’s most notorious animal attraction’ and we decided to adopt that as one of our own slogans. Why be in business if you're not prepared to take risks?”
The gamble paid off handsomely as Rhesus Park became a place of macabre curiosity, not only in the UK but in places far further afield. Alsatian keeps a record of all the nationalities to have visited Rhesus Park and he needs just six more to complete what would surely be a unique set. “We’re still waiting on a North Korean, a Greenlander, a Malian, a Kazakh, a South Sudanese and, curiously, a German. I don’t know why the Germans don’t like us, maybe it’s something to do with the war.”
That Rhesus Park has acquired just a vast global reach is down to the fact that Alsatian has racked up “more air miles than a drug mule” scouring the globe for cheap primates. As he flicks through his last few passports and shows me stamps from far-flung places such as Manila, Bratislava, Addis Ababa, Timbuktu, Alberta, Baku and Tehran, the sacrifices Alsatian has made to put Rhesus Park back on the map become clear. “It’s a 24-hour job in many ways,” he says. “Travelling the globe can be hard and lonely but it also has its perks. I’ve a girl in every port.”
This last line is delivered with a lascivious grin but a further glance beyond those alluring eyes betrays an inner sadness about his affairs of the heart. Alsatian clearly remains haunted by the one who got away, a sad fact he openly admits. “It’s now 12 years since our passionate affair came to an end,” he says, opening up a little about his mysterious fling with a famous face. “I still think about her a lot, though. It’s hard to move on when you’ve been with someone famous because sometimes you turn on your TV and see them staring back at you.”
When asked how he copes with this, Alsatian responds by saying: “Whisky and pornography,” and it’s hard to tell if he’s joking or being serious. If it’s the latter then the chances of Alsatian moving on and finding a new romance are slim. There is much to admire about the man sitting in front of me yet, like Rhesus Park itself, he will probably never be able to shake off demons from the past, no matter how hard he tries.
The Media Spotlight
You can't run an operation as slick as Rhesus Park without attracting some attention and we can regularly be found gracing the mass media. In this section we celebrate some of the triumphs and reflect on some of the tragedies that made Rhesus Park famous all over the world.
Rhesus Park at the Movies
Two giants of cinema have performed within the walls of Rhesus Park, revered Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman and all-action hero Charles Bronson. Both films were shot in the 1980s, which is generally regarded as the golden age of our proud institution when celebrities were regularly spotted strolling around Rhesus Park.
Legendary director Bergman (pictured right) shot one of most acclaimed features, The Loneliness Of The Emasculated Chimpanzee, on location at Rhesus Park at 1983. Regarded by many critics as the unofficial sequel to his 1957 masterpiece The Seventh Seal, Bergman broke new ground by exploring his trademark themes of death, illness, religion and betrayal through the eyes of a lowly chimpanzee.
Having chosen Rhesus Park as his location, hopes were high that one of our chimps would land the leading role, especially as the dominant male Dominoes was a battle-hardened veteran of several PG Tips adverts. Ever the perfectionist, though, Bergman opted to bring in a chimpanzee from outside our walls to foster the sense of isolation and depression needed for this key role.
This brought out a virtuoso performance from the poor simian who finally did fill the role, a bedraggled beast called Ivor from London Zoo, although he was spared the pain of having his testicles removed as an RSPCA campaign fronted by Esther Rantzen and her That’s Life team forced Bergman to backtrack on his plans to have an actual emasculated chimpanzee in the lead role.
Several Rhesus Park chimps did feature in supporting roles, though, with barbarous bullies Jaffa and Jericho earning acclaim from critic Roger Ebert for their ‘raw energy’ and ‘boundless depravity’. Dominoes was also handed a role as the patriarch of the group although you can tell he considers the role beneath him as he doesn’t really put his heart into it.
Three genuine A-list stars were involved in the film in the shape of Max von Sydow, Mia Farrow and Andre The Giant. Von Sydow, who was in his mid-50s at the time and at his peak as an actor, struck up a friendship with Rhesus Park stalwart Clemente Kurva, whom he shadowed for two months prior to shooting to prepare for his role as the chimpanzee keeper.
They were regularly spotted slugging Clemente’s Czech moonshine deep into the wee small hours, while discussing topics as diverse as weightlifting, chess, morality, nudism and rice crispies. At Clemente’s insistence, they also conversed deeply about exorcism, a skill he had been hoping to learn ever since his days in the Czech secret police.
Van Sydow passed on all the knowledge he had learned while preparing for his famous role as Father Merrin in the 1973 classic The Exorcist, leading to one of the darkest chapters in Rhesus Park history on September 21, 1983. Having drained two jugs of moonshine one afternoon between shoots, Kurva and Von Sydow decided they would try to exorcise a miscreant macaque whom Clemente suspected was possessed by a demon Archon. Their amateur attempt at expelling the demon ended in tragedy though when Clemente impaled the poor macaque through his heart with a crucifix, at the very moment Esther Rantzen was handing her RSPCA petition to Bergman just 100 yards away.
This wasn’t Clemente’s only brush with controversy during filming as he made several unsuccessful attempts to woo leading lady Farrow. The last of these, which crudely involved a kilt and a turkey baster after another legendary drinking session with Von Sydow and Andre The Giant, came while Farrow’s husband Woody Allen was visiting during a break from filming Zelig. When Allen unwisely challenged Clemente over his ‘baffling lack of basic morality’ he met with a typically combustible response and only Andre The Giant’s timely intervention stopped the world of comedy from losing one its greats at the tragically young age of 48.
Thankfully, the second feature film to be shot at Rhesus Park, the 1986 action adventure Apeshit!, elicited less controversy, mainly due to Clemente’s appreciation of the subject matter and the esteem in which he held leading man Charles Bronson.
While the lofty intellectual themes explored in The Loneliness Of The Emasculated Chimpanzee failed to float Clemente’s boat, he was far more excited about the prospect of a lone warrior facing down 6000 armed simians.
Indeed Clemente even pondered filing a lawsuit against writer/director John Lee Thompson given that he had been having a recurring dream about the same subject for decades and had been hatching plans for a screenplay of his own.
Instead he settled for a minor role in the film, playing the shop assistant who supplies Bronson with his heroic arsenal for the final assault on the simian fortress. Indeed, Clemente’s one line in the movie – “show those hairy f****** who’s boss!” – has secured him cult status with fans of the film, with some of them even releasing it as a ringtone.
Sadly, such a dedicated fanbase only just scrapes into double figures as the film was a major flop at the box office and was given a limited release on VHS and Betamax. Bronson, curiously, regarded the film as his one of his favourites and Warner Brothers are now planning a 30th anniversary DVD release for 2016.
In a 2001 interview with Empire Magazine, just two years before his death, Bronson singled out Apeshit! as one of his most memorable shoots, claiming: “I had a blast with those beasts, quite literally at times. What could be better than a big bag of guns and a barrel of monkeys?”