Our photographer Chris Boyce was one of the very first people to have seen Girona when he arrived at The Wildheart Sanctuary in 2018. Here, he shares his story and favourite photographs in giving a very personal insight into his very special relationship with our much loved Girona.

Male tiger Girona came to the the The Wildheart Animal Sanctuary as part of the ex-circus five that arrived in the very early morning of Friday 22nd June 2018. They had a long mid-summer journey from southern Spain. I expected them to be quaranteened and off-show for some time so I was rather surprised when I arrived soon afer lunch to be told that not only were they here but the “boys” were out and about and on-exhibit!

I was directed and rushed down to the lake enclosure. At first I didn’t see anything much, then I went round the side toward the nightrooms. There, in the shade of the bamboo and eucalyptus thicket was a tiger. It turned out to be Girona. I found out later he’d already taken a dip in the pool, which was later to become a theme with him, but that, and all the rest was still to come. His was striking, somewhat gaunt and haunting with long tear streaks which only accentuated the look. That too, it was to turn out, was only temporary.

That weekend was amazing, with five tigers to meet and learn to recognise. One, Antonella, was rather shyer than the rest, though in time even that too was to change. While four of the five, Mondo, Antonella, Zoppa and Natasha, shared obvious characteristics, meaning they could only be family, though how they were related we don’t know for sure. Girona, though was clearly not family. He was noticably different. Though what his story was we don’t and may well never know. While he wasn’t related, it soon became clear that Mondo treated him like a brother, with all that that entails. We all know how annoying siblings can be, but we wouldn’t be without them.

Girona’s first enrichment was on the Saturday, just the day after he had arrived. Both he and Mondo had trouble at first, and for some considerable time, in understanding what the opening of the slide door meant. They stayed inside, seemingly fearful of what might happen if they did the wrong thing. They had to be coaxed out. Girona was wide-eyed and perhaps fearful. I was very wary of posting that first enrichment photo. Once they had come out, and checked out the enrichment, they then appeared to get the idea that nothing bad was going to happen to them, and set about making their own entertainment. Girona went in the pool. He liked the pool, much more so than Mondo, who went in but just sat there.

For some time the tiger five were not given public feeds – the meat caused aggressive/competitive behaviour in all five – but they had plenty of enrichment. These sessions often went on for half an hour or more, giving the public a lot of value, both entertaining and educational. Melons, hardly what one might for tigers, proved a big hit, especially with Girona.

Early on I remember Georgia, asking me who my favourite out of the five was. She could see I had a soft spot for Antonella, but I told her it was Girona I really liked. I just wanted to take him home and look after him, keeping him warm by the fire. Not that I had a fire in my home at that time. For me he was an older gent, all slippers and Val Doonican sweaters. That impression didn’t change much over the coming years.

Girona soon became a training star, much more so than Mondo. Training was a big hit with the public too, so I had to include a shot of Girona with Caz. He was the first of the five to have a successful blood draw, in public too! Of the two tiger boys, Girona liked the temple most, especially in the late afternoon.

Something else it soon became clear that Girona liked was meals on wheels. He took a particular interest in children in pushchairs and those on mobility scooters and the like. The lake enclosure provided cover and plenty of ways to sneak up on and stalk “prey”.

Girona had a mischievous streak and liked to use Mondo for stalking and chasing practise. In the lake enclosure this often ended in the pool. They generally made up soon after but those encounters were often spectacular.

In early 2019 Girona had an exploratory operation to look at his forepaw which had an abcess/infection or similar that just wouldn’t go way. X-rays revealed it to be related to be a legacy of de-clawing. As can happen with cats, he responded badly to the anaesthetics used in the operation but came out of it okay. He took longer to recover than was expected, several weeks when he was isolated from Mondo. Despite all the disagreements it was clear that Mondo was missing his friend, he called day after day. The afternoon they were reunited was remarkable and touching. I was lucky to be there and photograph their reunion. Their encounters in the pool continued.

Once Mondo was gone Girona came out less and less. He still patrolled, but once round the enclosure was generally all he could manage. He no longer got on to the platform, taking to laying on a rock by the stream and later still, the training platform where I photographed his hind paw and him with Sandra.

The last time I saw him was the Sunday before he died, coming out to find his feed.

When I first met Girona I wondered how long we’d know him for. Even if it was only for three months it would be great, I thought. Like many things with Girona, first impressions were not entirely accurate. It turned out to be very nearly three years. Three great and glorious years of “G”. Thank you Girona, for sharing those years with us.