A Causeway safari

DO YOU remember the Safari Park? In the 1970s the sight of lions, elephants and baboons roaming the fields of Northern Ireland was no fantasy. It was reality - at the Causeway Safari Park between Coleraine and Bushmills.

Nichola Forgrave reports

Now, a new BBC documentary called 'The Lion Game' will explore the inside story for the Safari Park, which was one of the Province's most popular tourist attractions.

However for Louise Trufelli, whose family owns Barry's in Portrush and her husband Pat Stephenson, the couple who created the park, it was not just an unusual business venture, it was a dream come true and a strange and magical home in which they could raise their young family.

With revealing interviews and previously unseen archive film, the programme tells the poignant, inside story of the Safari Park and of the family who struggled, at enormous personal cost, to keep it open during the darkest days of the Troubles.

Louise recalls: "It was totally mad, it was completely mad but you know you have to do some things like that in your life."

Pat adds: "Probably the happiest, stressful time of my life was spent there

However, the couple's first major set-back came just days before they were due to open their doors to the public for the first time in Easter 1970.

A rabies scare across the United Kingdom meant the animals had to be kept in quarantine and the gates had to remain shut for a further six months, despite already having spent six months in quarantine before the scare.

Despite the growing unrest across Northern Ireland at the start of the Troubles, Pat and Louise were determined to open their doors to be greeted on their first day by a queue of traffic over two miles long waiting to get into the park.

Concerned local police worried about the amount of money being held on the premises approached the couple about the matter.

Quick thinking Pat solved the problem immediately by storing the money in milk churns which he put in with the lions!

However the Ulster Workers Strike of 1974 brought a further blow to the park, as the family struggled to make ends meet, local people rallied around bringing them the contents of their freezers to help feed the animals and to help keep the park going.

Faced with the prospect of rising outgoings, soaring upkeep costs and the escalating violence in Northern Ireland, in 1981 the couple were left with no option but to take the heartbreaking decision to sell their beloved park.

It continued to operate for a further 15 years before finally closing its doors.

Today their former keeper Davy Liggett, who still works on the land which is now an animal sanctuary, takes a nostalgic walk around the area recalling the days when the monkeys, tigers and lions roamed the countryside.

Davy said: "I really enjoyed working here. It was a pleasure and was a good laugh, as everyone enjoyed it here."

The Lion Game will be shown next Wednesday (September 13) on BBC 1 NI at 10.45pm and is narrated by Brid Brennan.