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Pierre Thivillon has been hailed as a modern day Noah, saving hundreds of animals in France over the past 30 years.

They’re some of the scores of exotic creatures seized every year, either after being abandoned or because they’re being kept illegally.

From lions and tigers, to gorillas that share meals with Pierre and his wife, all have found refuge at the St-Martin-la-Plaine Zoo near Lyon.

Dateline goes behind the scenes at the zoo, and joins officials on a raid of a circus where animals are being kept illegally.

And for anyone who wants to get over their fear of handling crocodiles, there’s an insight into the kind of reptiles that people even try and smuggle in their luggage.

The global trade in exotic animals is worth billions of dollars. For the right price you can legally buy everything from tigers, to baboons and even zebras. But what happens when your babbon gets too big for the apartment or your baby crocodile outgrows the fish tank. Thousands of animals, many of them rare or endangered are abandoned or put down. In France one man has made it his life mission to give these unwanted and ill-treated animals a future. Here’s Vicky Strobl.

REPORTER: Victoria Strobl

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): Hello, Bubus.

MARC JACOUD (Translation): Her name is Samantha.

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): This is the 57th monkey rescued by our organisation in less than two years.

Samantha the Barbary monkey is arriving at her new home.

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): She is beautiful. We’ll get her out. You will meet another macaque. You won’t be alone, don’t worry. Come and join your friends.

This is the zoo of St-Martin-la-Plaine, started by Pierre Thivillon, it's a sanctuary for exotic animals like Samantha, who have nowhere else to go.

MARC JACOUD (Translation): She was kept in someone’s home. Her owners used to have a large property, so she lived outside - free. They probably had to move. The new neighbours did not want a monkey next door. So they took the wise decision to part with her.

Pierre Thivillon has dedicated his life to animal conservation and today his private zoo is home to over 1,000 animals, rescued from wildlife traffickers, circuses and people's homes.

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): I’d had the idea of a refuge for a long time, I felt that a professional like me, like our business could provide a solution to the problem of animals… All right? So we could solve this problem because you have to be a professional in this field to be prepared to take in a lion, a tiger or a monkey. Hi there, where are you kids? Tigger… How are you baby?

In this building Pierre Thivillon keeps 12 big cats. Most of them came here in very bad condition, from circuses where they were being kept illegally.

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): Hello, are you angry with me? This male had his tail cut off. He looked like it was the end of him, the end of the journey. Right, baby?

Without Pierre Thivillon and his refuge these lions and tigers would have been euthanised.

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): You can have this if you give me the rope. Give me the rope. Come on, you can have this. Very kind. You are very kind.

Pierre is passionate about all of his animals but it's the apes that fascinate him the most.

REPORTER (Translation): Do you try to train them?

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): No….we are not here to teach them to be humans. They’ve taught me to be a gorilla, that is more important. I love you too.

Pierre and his wife Elaine consider these gorillas as their own children. Every night Digit and Ginko walk the bridge that connect s the cage to Pierre and Elaine's house.

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): Get in.

The couple share their meals with the apes and they are free to come and go as they please.

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): Look at this….at night when we take them with us, and all through the night….amazing things happen. If they want to give us a kiss and a cuddle…. Last night Ginko held my hand. He was holding it tight and we both fell asleep like that at 2am. Those are spontaneous displays of affection. See you later.

Caring for an ape is a full time job that requires specialised knowledge and job. Yet each year in France hundreds of primates are rescued from collectors who don't know how to look after them.

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): I’ll give you leaves blown off by the wind.

In this enclosure Pierre keeps 20 monkeys from North Africa. All are confiscated from animal smugglers on their way to exotic pet markets.

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): As soon as traders sell a young animal, they go and get another and kill the adults to do so. Clearly, anybody who buys a wild animal plays a part in the extinction of its species. We are not talking about one individual being taken, but sometimes three or four killed to get one baby.

But France's wildlife authorities are fighting back. Police receive information that a visiting circus is keeping animals without authority.

POLICE (Translation): We are from the National Office of Hunting and Wildlife. We’re here to check your site….let’s go around this way.

The police move in. They seize two lions and an alligator.

POLICE (Translation): It’s at least five metres long. Where are the lions from?

MAN (Translation): Africa.

They can't produce documents of ownership.

POLICE (Translation): Just stay here. Watch out, they mustn’t touch the lions’ cage.

Then things get out of control. The lion tamer tries to open the big cat's cage and police are forced to intervene.

POLICE (Translation): Arrest him!

The keepers are desperate. Their livelihood depends on these animals.

WOMAN (Translation): You didn’t explain. You said you would bring the truck, now there are policemen running everywhere. It’s frightening.

POLICE (Translation): She tried to open the doors.

WOMAN (Translation): You said you’d take them and didn’t give an explanation. That’s not on.

Vets are brought in to take care of the lions, but the animals are too on edge and have to be anaesthetised.

POLICE (Translation): Good boy.

These lions are lucky. In a few hours they will be taken to Pierre Thivillon's refuge. But across France, countless other exotic animals face an uncertain future. This centre is host to thousands of homeless reptiles from American snakes to albino geckos from Malaysia.

KARIM DAOUES (Translation): They’ve been seized and handed to us till we find zoos that can accommodate them.

Known as Mr Reptile to his colleagues, the centre's director, Karim Daoues, says he is a self-taught expert.

KARIM DAOUES (Translation): Three years ago we acquired a young Nile crocodile, he was in a dusty stairwell in Pantin. The fire-fighters brought him to us. Nile crocodiles are quite aggressive, you have to take precautions when you handle him. I’m worried about my fingers, he could bite his tail, too.

REPORTER (Translation): How old is he?

KARIM DAOUES (Translation): Over two years old, he has grown quite slowly as he wasn’t in great shape when he arrived. Adults can grow to six metres. I imagine someone bought him as a baby in a souk in Egypt, one of the few places where they are sold as pets. He was brought back illegally in the luggage. You can’t look after a crocodile in an apartment, he’ll weigh 500 kilos one day. Sorry, I want to keep my fingers!

Financially, we are in the red, of course - we run at a loss but we can’t let the animals suffer and fend for themselves just because it costs money. That would be criminal.

Karim Daoues is passionate about passing on his knowledge of reptiles and runs training programs for authorities responsible for animal rescue.

KARIM DAOUES (Translation): Clear some space, please.

Today these firefighters are learning how to handle dangerous animals like the Little Nile Crocodile.

KARIM DAOUES (Translation): If I hold him by the tail, he can turn around and bite…as he just showed us. So don’t hesitate - you don’t worry about the legs - just the mouth. Stay clear of it.

Very good…. I need you to move him. Let him move, just guide him.

His teeth are about one centimetre long and he has enormous constrictive power. Never let a snake that size do a full turn simply because if you panic and move too much, the animal squeezes you. You panic, move more and he squeezes more.

Although they may not need to rescue a boa constrictor this size every day, with the growing popularity of exotic pets in France these fire-fighters need to be prepared to handle all kinds of animals.

At St-Martin-la-Plaine Zoo, Pierre Thivillon is expecting a new addition.

MARC JACOUD (Translation): Leo….come on kid, come here kid.

Leo is a circus lion beginning his retirement.

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): Those animals are born in captivity, they are used to humans. We are close to him and he is drinking, he isn’t scared. But everything around here, everything he sees, smells or hears, is new. He needs time to adapt.

We’ll be able to pat you soon.

When you are ready, open the left trapdoor.

It's a special day for Pierre and his big cats. The team is letting the lions into a newly opened play area.

MARC JACOUD (Translation): That’s good Mulan.

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): It could be the first time he walked on grass. Good…don’t damage the lawn, it’s brand new. Don’t damage it princess. I said ‘Don’t damage the lawn.’ Look at this… Look how happy they are.

But the happiest of all is probably Pierre. He has never felt so close to his lions.

PIERRE THIVILLON (Translation): He’s happy, aren’t you mate?

MARC JACOUD (Translation): We’ve worked eight months on this. Here’s the result. I don’t know if it’s good for them, but it’s good for us. How can people be happy with the conditions provided in some places. Imagine those animals who lived for years in public squares, in trucks...who’ve never had a space with trees and grass. They must enjoy times like this. Watching them live, knowing what they can do, seeing them rolling in the grass like this is wonderful.

YALDA HAKIM: Amazing to see those big gorillas being hand fed.






9th October 2012
WATCH - Click to see this report, narrated by Victoria Strobl.