Nicholas Owen meets Wildlife Aid's Simon Cowell
PUBLISHED: 20:59 08 November 2011 | UPDATED: 16:56 25 April 2014
Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, Leatherhead-based Wildlife Aid has saved the lives of more than 150,000 sick, injured and orphaned wild animals over the past three decades. NICHOLAS OWEN meets the charity's founder Simon Cowell
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2010
The first sign of a real health problem was when he passed out on a train on the way from his Surrey home to work in London. It was the start of a nervous breakdown.
He had a second one before deciding to change his life altogether and devote himself to what he really wanted to do: rescue animals in distress.
Simon Cowell may not be the highly famous pop impresario of the same name, but he is a hero to the many people who support Wildlife Aid, which he runs from his home in Leatherhead helped by a handful of full-time employees and more than 200 volunteers.
"All creatures are created equal,” he says. "And everything deserves a second chance."
His own second chance came in his early 40s when the breakdowns persuaded him to give up being a City commodity broker and concentrate on the animals. There are still signs of the highly-strung energy that made him a very successful finance man. He is impatiently angry with any evidence that animals are getting maltreated, and he rages at the way human behaviour is endangering so many species. “We are so selfish and inward-looking,” he says. “Human beings can be so stupid and short-sighted.”
At his wildlife rehabilitation centre, which is manned 24 hours a day, they handle thousands of incidents a year. Some are just calls for advice.
Many mean turning out for a rescue, and that can be anything from adders trapped in plastic netting in a garden, foxes that fall into the basement area of a house, baby owls tipped out of trees that are being cut down, to any number of animals that have been hit by cars. “Ninety per cent of our patients,” Simon says, “are down to man’s negligence.”
Injuries are treated with the best veterinary procedures – there is even intensive care for serious cases – and often physiotherapy is needed on wings or feet. The majority survive and the aim is always to set animals free in the wild again. Just a few cannot be saved and have to be put down.
Quite often, young animals found on their own are mistakenly thought to be orphaned, which has to be gently pointed out when they are taken into the centre. Frequently, the parents have simply gone off foraging for food. The kindest thing is to get the youngster back where it can be reunited with them.
For those that need treatment and then recuperation, hospital accommodation, cages and pens are scattered around the three acres surrounding Simon’s home. Being shown round is to encounter the widest variety of creatures.
‘Humanising’ them is wrong, Simon says, and he avoids giving them names. There are, however, some exceptions. Percival is a swan goose who was rescued as he wandered terribly lost along the busy High Street in Esher.
Percival has long been cured of any injuries, but he did not fly off again and has taken up residence. Simon scoops up the affectionate goose. I am a bit wary, noticing that the beak features some razor sharp teeth. “I have been injured a few times,” Simon admits. “I have had a deer’s antler in my neck, close to the artery, and another one in my forehead close to one of my eyes. I have been bitten a few times, too. If you approach a wild animal it has one of three reactions: flee, freeze, or fight.
But if you do it properly, and know what you are doing, if you show you are not scared, you should not get attacked yourself.”
It took him a while to learn how to avoid getting hurt. Among his earliest rescues was a swan with a damaged leg that landed on, and declined to leave, the 18th green of the Tyrells Wood golf course near Leatherhead.
“All the golfers were standing around watching me, waiting for me to do something. I thought to myself: ‘What do I do with this?’ Eventually, I picked up the swan, simply tucked it under my arm, and that was the job done.”
Born in Epsom, Simon was the son of an agricultural engineer. His father passed on to his only child a strong sense of the practical, an important skill when it came to setting up the rescue centre. Simon built many of the pens and cages himself. “I remember my dad gave me a motorbike when I was old enough… it was in bits. I had to put it together.”
In his teens, he worked for relatives on various Surrey farms, and animals were always his passion. “When I was young, I wanted to be a vet. Except I knew I didn’t have the staying power to study and work for it for seven years.” Instead, he aimed for the City, turning up for an interview in the only suit he had, smelling distinctly of the farmyard after helping at the birth of a calf.
In spite of that, he was taken on and discovered what a frenetic world it was wheeling and dealing in cocoa, sugar, and the rest. Simon’s struggle to cope wasn’t helped by a nervous stutter – he says even today it comes back a little when he is under strain – which more or less disappeared when one of his bosses told him bluntly he had no future as a commodity broker if he stumbled as he talked to clients.
The work was relentless but the rewards huge. When he started, his pay was £800 a year. It wasn’t long before he got his first annual bonus: it was £5,000. He went straight home to Surrey and bought a white TR6 sports car. “I remember exactly how much it cost. I paid £1,908 for it at a showroom in Reigate. You should have seen the look on the salesman’s face when this youngster walked in and said he wanted that sports car, there and then!”
But the big money and the long hours took their toll on him. He says he knows he was “burnt out” and then the nervous breakdowns came along. Having already started the part-time rescue of animals in trouble in 1980, it became a full-time occupation in the mid 1990s.
On my visit, as well as Percival the goose who never left, we encounter a hedgehog that escapes a volunteer’s clutches and hides under a chair, and an adult owl that had been found on a busy road.
“He was found by the motorway maintenance people on the central reservation of the M23, and they called us to come and get him,” Simon recalls. “He’d obviously been hit by a car, and one foot was injured.”
The owl is better now, although even for a shy creature, he did appear to be cowering right at the back of his cage. Simon says the owl is clearly suffering from depression. If that sounds unlikely, he insists he and his staff often see mental problems after an animal has had a traumatic experience.
Keeping the Leatherhead base going is expensive. Simon says running costs are almost £1,000 a day, so their annual open day, held each summer, is vital in raising awareness and support. This being the centre’s 30th anniversary, he is hoping the 2010 open day, on June 20, will attract an even bigger crowd than usual. It is donations from visitors and regular supporters that keep the charity in business.
Being named in people’s wills is another important source of funds, and a lot of legacy donations have come thanks to the other side of Simon Cowell’s work. For years, he has filmed, edited and starred in the television series Wildlife SOS. Many of the programmes are about the day-to-day goings-on at Leatherhead, and the various rescues around the area. Some have also focussed on his visits to observe wildlife abroad. “I spent a week in Zambia, seeing all sorts of animals. The elephants were… just amazing. I cried for the whole week I was there.”
Tears may seem unlikely for the apparently tough guy Cowell, unafraid of the odd antler in the neck or head, though he has had his share of personal troubles. As well as the health problems, he is divorced. He now shares his rambling and charming 17th century house with his girlfriend Stani Hing, who comes from Slovakia. He has two daughters, Emma Louise, a 31-year-old singer-songwriter who also helps her father run his office, and Gemma Elizabeth, who is 30 and a fitness instructor.
To mark the rehabilitation centre’s 30th anniversary, there is a new appeal to raise more money to expand and maybe even move to a new site. The idea is to have more space and equipment to look after injured animals, plus an education centre to teach young people about the importance of respecting nature and the environment. Simon can turn extremely gloomy when he talks of what humans do. “Look down at most of the UK, look down at Surrey, and there is so much greenery,” he says. “But when you get to the ground, when you look closer, it’s all criss-crossed with roads. And that is so bad for wildlife.”
As he talks about what he has achieved for the hordes of patients treated and cared for over the years, I ask Simon Cowell to sum up what they have meant to him: “They have all had their own individual characters, every one,” he says. “I love them all.”
- For more information about Wildlife Aid, contact them through their website at www.wildlifeaid.org.uk or via www.twitter.com/wildlifeaid. To report a wildlife related incident, call 09061 800132 (calls charged at 50p a minute)