The kids who grew up with chimps, leopards and a bear

Eighteen month old girl drinking milk with a monkey
Image caption,Tracey pictured in 1969 with an orangutan rescued by the family after being smuggled to Birmingham

Drinking tea with chimpanzees and taking a pet leopard for a walk was part of everyday life for the Clews family, who had so many animals they opened a zoo at their home.

Almost 40 years after it closed, they take the BBC through their extraordinary collection of family photographs.

Graham Clews points out the corner of his kitchen where a cage for baby chimps once sat.

“This was a complete mad house,” he smiles.

Now 75, he still lives in the family house at Grandborough Farm in Warwickshire, where Southam Zoo operated for around 15 years.

He is regularly pestered in the local pub for stories of his wild upbringing surrounded by lions and baboons in the middle of the English countryside.

With tales of leopards relaxing in the living room and monkeys with a penchant for tobacco, the truth is often stranger than the rumours that circulate to this day.

Boy and chimp drinking tea
Image caption,Graham Clews drinks tea with Mickey at the Southam farm in 1962

Graham moved to the farm, near Rugby, when he was 18 months old with his father Leslie and animal-loving mum Pauline.

The couple, who later had two more children, started out with a milking herd and pigs. But one Christmas, Pauline started thinking bigger.

She spotted a picture of an air hostess with a baby chimpanzee in a copy of the Daily Mirror.

When her husband asked what she wanted for a present that year, she told him: “I’d love that chimp,” Graham recalls.

A few days later a baby chimp arrived, followed by a bear from a touring circus, then a raccoon.

As the private collection snowballed, locals became accustomed to the roars of big cats carrying across the fields.

“Slowly it just got bigger and bigger until it was too big to be private,” says Graham.

“You couldn’t afford to keep it as just your pets because of the food bills. So we opened it as a zoo.”

A chimp and its owner in the 1960s
Image caption,Zoo co-founder Pauline Clews with chimpanzee Mickey on a shopping trip to Coventry in 1968
A Jack Russell terrier and a 12-month-old lioness at Southam Zoo
Image caption,The family remembers multiple species living like “one big family” at the zoo

In 1966 a café was built and the first visitors to the eight-acre site saw a collection of exotic birds, big cats and monkeys.

But a bigger draw was the extraordinary bonds between the animals and their keepers.

In his teens, Graham acquired a pet leopard, Charlie, which wandered freely and slept on the farmhouse sofa.

Its best friend was a penguin named Wobbly Willy.

“As long as you could see one you knew where they were,” Graham says.

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