MEET Simi – the tiger that stole the glory from new Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at his first Prime Minister’s Questions.

Isle of Wight MP Andrew Turner raised the issue about Simi, an eight-year-old tiger who cannot be rehomed on the island because of “red tape”.

The unusual question took the limelight away from Mr Corbyn, 66, who became leader of the opposition last weekend.

Laughter erupted in the House of Commons when Mr Turner brought up the subject of the Isle of Wight Zoo’s attempt to rescue the tiger.

The Conservative MP said the zoo in Sandown faced a “bureaucratic log jam” and wanted the Prime Minister’s help.

David Cameron has promised to do what he can to bring a happy ending to the story.

But why is the Isle of Wight Zoo so determined to give Simi a new home?

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It is no surprise when you discover that the magnificent creatures have always been like family to director Charlotte Corney.

Some of her earliest memories are of playing with tiger cubs, taking them for walks on the beach and even sharing her bath with them.

Charlotte’s father bought the Isle of Wight Zoo in 1976 when she was a baby and relocated the family there from Cheshire.

It was a bold move for the former RAF pilot-turned engineer, who had no background in caring for animals but his passion for conservation won through when he saw that the zoo was up for sale.

In 1977 the family – Charlotte, her older sister and their parents – moved into the house next door to the zoo – and the animals started moving into their house.

“My first memory of a big cat is when I was a few years old, being in the same play area together,” says Charlotte, now 39.

“It was just completely normal to me to have big cats around.

“All of my friends at primary school had grown up knowing about us and the zoo.

“They thought it was fun if they came to stay and there were bears in the living room, but they didn’t think it was particularly strange.”

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Over the years the family shared their home with around eight big cats, including tigers, lions and leopards; black bears, seals, lemurs and various other animals, hand rearing many of them for other zoos.

At that time there was no formal training, and they learnt on the job from other members of the zoo community.

Charlotte’s mother went from being a secretary to hand feeding big cats and lemurs.

“It was only when I went to a new school when I was 12, and was with a different group of children, that it clicked that it wasn’t normal to share your house with these animals,” continues Charlotte.

“I remember people thinking it was a bit strange when my mum picked me up from school in a 2CV with a leopard on the front seat.”

The family reared big cats until they were around six months old. It might be surprising to hear that small children played alongside tiger and lion cubs, but Charlotte was never hurt by any of the animals.

“I was never bitten,” she says.

“The worst bite I’ve ever had was from a German Shepherd dog.

“My parents were very sensible. They made common sense judgements.

“It’s about being in sync with the animals and not pushing your luck.”

Charlotte says that running a zoo has always brought its stresses, particularly financial ones, with it feeling like there was never enough money.

But looking back she realises how privileged she was, and has lots of idyllic memories.

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Although some aren’t so good: “My dad had a passion for venomous snakes, which I didn’t share!” she laughs.

“He was always getting bitten and sometimes dying and being brought back to life!”

Sharing their modest four bed house next to the zoo, on the seafront at Yaverland, Sandown, where her mother still lives, with a menagerie did mean some compromises for the family.

“You couldn’t be too house proud,” she says.

In her teens, Charlotte went to boarding school in the week, to help her concentrate on her studies.

“I came home from school for the weekend and my dad had moved three lemurs into my bedroom. There was a £50 caravan for me to stay in!”

It was while she was living in that caravan, at the age of around 19, that Charlotte hand-reared a tiger, Zia, the great love of her life.

Zia, now 20, still lives at the Zoo and the pair’s strong bond remains.

“She’s like my daughter,” says Charlotte, whose partner is Southampton-born BBC presenter Chris Packham.

“I can’t go in her enclosure because she would get excited, and an excited tiger is dangerous. But I can cuddle and pet her through the mesh - it is hard sometimes.”

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Charlotte is looking forward to being able to give Simi, the tiger who was rescued from a German circus and hit the headlines this week, a new home for life, where she will receive lots of love and attention.

At the end of the month she is going to Sumatra as part of a tiger patrol unit to help find illegal traps set by poachers with conservation organisation Fauna & Flora International.

Conservation work is a key part of the zoo’s work.

Charlotte says she understands why people criticise zoos and accepts that they are not perfect, but says they are essential.

“Zoos have an important part to play in animal welfare and conservation,” she says.

“At the moment there isn’t a realistic alternative. There are thousands of animals around the globe that can’t be released and a good number of them play a vital role in ensuring that species are not lost forever.

“I would rather I’d never met Zia and that she was living in a steamy Indian jungle, even though she has been my entire life, but that was never an option.

“If people are against zoos, the question is, what do yo do instead?

“It would be better if these animals were out in the wild but that’s not an option. And our animals here live rich and fulfilled lives.”

* Charlotte is fundraising to help with Flora & Fauna International’s anti-poaching work. To make a donation, visit