The tiger who flew halfway across the world for a better life

Phevos the tiger

He weighs 260kg, has a bone-crushing bite and paws the size of dinner plates, but Phevos the tiger is the latest victim of Greece's economic crisis - and this week he left the country for a new home on other side of the world.

Most of the time Phevos is a gentle creature. I sat with him the day before his journey, and he was quiet, content and passive.

"He reacts very well to being softly spoken to. He listens when I talk to him. He twitches his ears, and he loves having his head rubbed," says David Barnes, a former RSPCA inspector.

Barnes has spent the past year arranging to rescue Phevos from a small zoo in Trikala, central Greece, which has struggled to look after its exotic animals in the face of the cuts which have hit every aspect of Greek life.

"But he is a tiger. I've seen him turn - he did it the other day - when he sees someone he doesn't like. That tells me straight away, something bad happened there. He's very, very, clever."

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Media captionDavid Barnes prepares Phevos for his journey

Barnes talks to Phevos continuously. The 41 stone (573lb) tiger knows and recognises human faces and reacts positively to people he trusts.

The zoo used to have a resident vet but it couldn't afford to employ her. She is still consulted occasionally but there is no longer constant veterinary care.

For a long time, Barnes was also worried that some animals weren't getting the right food. Then in March the other tiger at Trikala, Athena, died from complications brought on by a badly infected paw.

"It was neglect," says Barnes. "Pure and simple. If that had happened in Britain there would have been prosecutions without a shadow of a doubt. It took four months just to get permission from the Greek government to anaesthetise her. That's crazy."

Until his departure from Greece, Phevos - who is part Bengal tiger and part Siberian - was actually owned by the Greek government.

Image caption David Barnes with Phevos

The new home for Phevos is the Lions, Tigers and Bears Sanctuary in Alpine, California. He'll be with other tigers there, and will get the veterinary attention he needs for hip dysplasia - a congenital problem which causes pain when he walks.

It probably stems from interbreeding in the travelling circus where he began his life. Barnes rescued him from the circus 13 years ago so this is the second time he has intervened to improve his quality of life.

For Barnes, the main hurdle in this whole process has been less to do with the practical challenges of shipping a large tiger, and more about finding a route through the maze of bureaucracy.

"Around every corner there was something blocking the way," he says. "It took eight months to sort out the paperwork. I've been emailing, texting, and telephoning. There've been times when I've thought it's not going to happen. But once I'd decided I was going to do it, I had to do it. I had to carry it through."

It took extensive negotiation with the Greek and US governments, as well as the local authorities in Trikala. Special permits had to be obtained under CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) because there are only about 3,000 tigers left in the wild.

A last minute hitch emerged a couple of hours before departure, when a new demand came from the shipping agents that under IATA (International Air Transport Association) regulations each air hole in Phevos's crate had to be 5cm wide. A carpenter was rushed to the zoo, so some holes could be widened.

"Then we had to deal with customs and the veterinary authorities for health certificates - he's been vaccinated, micro-chipped, and he's been blood-tested. But the longest wait wasn't Greece. It was the American authorities for the import licence," says Barnes.

"From what I understand, the USA does not actively encourage the importation of big cats because they think they've got enough in the USA. The sanctuary he's going to has never brought an animal in from outside the country before."

Then getting Phevos into the crate was another challenge. Even the sight of his favourite meal - a chicken (he eats 35 a week) - failed to tempt him in. Eventually after 30 minutes of failed coaxing, a vet tranquilized him and he was dragged in by ropes attached to his paws, after which he was woken up again.

Before dawn on Wednesday, the crate was hoisted into the air by crane and deposited in a truck which took him from Trikala to Athens. Barnes and I followed in our car as the sun rose over the mountains of central Greece - Phevos, which means Sun God, made his way towards the airport and a new life.

In Trikala there are complex emotions about losing Phevos.

"We're feeling strange today," says Odisseas Raptis who runs e-Trikala, part of the municipal government which owns the zoo.

"I don't know if we are happy or we are sad. First of all we are happy that Phevos is going to a better place to live the rest of his life in peace and better conditions.

"But on the other hand we're sad because we are used to having tigers here in Trikala. Honestly speaking, overall we're feeling sad," he says.

He admits that the animals at the zoo should have been looked after better.

"There's been a lack of money for years and we haven't had enough specialist knowledge of how to treat these exotic animals. Of course we are not happy that animals have suffered here, but we've always wanted the best for them. That's why we are sending him to the US."

From Trikala to San Diego

  • Total distance: 7,000 miles
  • Duration: 45 hours
  • The crate measures 1.7m x 1.2m x 900cm
  • It has a metal frame, wire mesh sides and is covered in plywood
  • There are 180 air holes.
  • The transfer cost £13,000 which was raised through charity funding
  • Phevos had a constant supply of water and food was provided in London
  • The tiger remained conscious during the entire journey

And it seems Phevos may not be the only one on the move - Barnes says his next task is to get some of the other animals at the zoo rehoused.

His wish list includes a female Coati Mundi - a member of the raccoon family from South America, a male wallaby, a male Skyros pony and some miniature zebu. Almost all these animals are alone because their companions have died.

After a six-hour drive we arrived at Athens Airport, and word quickly went around among the cargo staff that they had an unusual traveller in their midst. Crowds of handlers - people well used to shipping goods across the world - milled around the crate taking photographs and peering through the air holes. Inside the crate Phevos appeared to be unfazed, despite the noise, excitement, and moving vehicles of a busy loading bay.

Staff fixed extra labels to the crate saying "Attention. This Animal Bites."

A few hours later Phevos was loaded onto a Boeing 767, into a pressurised section at the front of the aircraft hold, for the first leg of the flight - to London Heathrow.

The novelty factor was also apparent when we boarded the plane. Word went round among the passengers that there was a tiger on board. One of the stewards told me they'd all watched the crate being loaded. "I've never flown with a tiger before," one of them said. "It's really exciting."

After spending the night in quarantine at Heathrow, Phevos continued his journey on Thursday to San Diego, California.

Barnes was there every step of the way. "I've rescued many animals before… but this is by far the biggest thing I've ever done on my own. I'm proud of what I've achieved," he says. "I've made a lot of friends in Trikala and in Greece over the years and I'm really grateful that everyone has been so helpful.

"He's going to a better life - that's what it's all about."

More tiger tales from the Magazine

I raised tiger cubs in my front room

Face to face with a man-eating tiger

Listen to Andrew Bomford's report on PM on BBC Radio 4. Phevos's journey was also featured on Breakfast on BBC1.

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