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INTERVIEW: Warren Ellis Discusses His New Animal Sanctuary
Patrick Clarke , June 22nd, 2021 10:09

Bad Seed Warren Ellis has opened a sanctuary for animals with special needs in Sumatra. He tells Patrick Clarke the full story of the project, and why he hopes to erect a statue of Nina Simone's gum on the site

Warren Ellis has had a particularly busy year. To say nothing of his prolific scoring work for TV and cinema, he’s released two of the year’s biggest albums, Carnage with frequent collaborator Nick Cave and She Walks In Beauty with Marianne Faithfull. He’s written a highly-anticipated book, Nina Simone’s Gum, about a piece of gum discarded by the legendary jazz singer after one of her shows, then housed in a glass case by Cave and Ellis like a religious relic. The book, Ellis says, takes the gum as a jumping off point for a deeper exploration of “how something so small can form beautiful connections between people.”

It’s a philosophy, he explains to tQ, that can be followed all the way through to his latest, and perhaps biggest venture of all, the founding of Ellis Park in Sumatra. In partnership with experienced animal welfare activists Lorinda Jane and Femke den Haas, Ellis has purchased a plot of land in Indonesia for the construction of a home for animals with special needs. They include a monkey so badly treated that its arms had to be amputated, bears that have had their teeth forcibly removed, and a macaque found tied to a street pole in Jakarta – animals that will never be able to be released back into the wild.

To find out more about Ellis Park, and how it connects to the love of personal connection that’s defined all his work so far this year, tQ caught up with the musician over the phone.

How exactly did the Ellis Park sanctuary come about?

Warren Ellis: I go back a long way with Lorinda [Jane, Ellis Park co-founder]. She used to book Dirty Three in the very early days. I saw her for the first time in a while at a screening of Michael Hutchence documentary that I’d done the music for and I asked her what she was doing. She was working with orangutans in Sumatra and running [anti-palm oil advocacy group] Palm Oil Investigations and I just found it so inspiring, what she was doing. I said ‘look, I’d love to help one day’. Then in February I was working on a documentary on snow leopards and she emailed me asking if I would be happy to put my image on a beard balm, the proceeds were going to the orangutans and the Palm Oil Investigations. Long story short, was I said ‘I’d love to get involved in something and she introduced me to Femke [den Haas, co-founder and co-director].

I had a Zoom chat with her and ten seconds in I was absolutely blown away by what she’d been doing. Since 2002 she’s worked tirelessly for animal liberation in Indonesia. Then we set about working out how to purchase the land and donated it to the Jakarta Animal Aid Network that she had set up in 2008, then realised that we’d founded a charity!

What was it about Jane and den Haas’ work that made you want to get so involved?

WE: The aim of Femke’s work is usually to release the animals back into nature. The idea [with Ellis Park] was to build a park for the animals that can’t even be let back. We’ve taken in a monkey that had been chained up and they had to amputate the arms off it because they’d been chained up and eaten through to the bone. There’s three bears which have had their teeth removed so people could have a photo with them. The whole COVID thing too closed down a lot of tourism over there, and you’ve got these animals starving. This constant need for a forever place for animals that sadly can’t be let back into nature, it struck me as a really beautiful thing to engage in. I guess that there’s something about animals that, they don’t ask for any of that kind of treatment and yet they’ve had it dished out. It’s not about finger pointing, it’s about hope, that’s the bottom line.

I think it’s also linked a bit to [the pandemic] of last year, feeling powerless about certain things. I’ve lived a really amazing creative life that’s really fulfilling. I guess I really wanted to feel like I was putting something back in, beyond what I do. I think it was as simple as that. I’ve donated to certain things and done that sort of thing when I can, but it felt like by doing this I also have to roll my sleeves up. I wanted to enable these people because they’re so incredible. Femke’s organisation is all volunteers.

Credit: Ellis Park / Instagram

Tell us more about how the pandemic has intensified that desire to get involved…

WE: You’re either someone who is privileged, or you aren’t. You were able to ride [the pandemic] out or you couldn’t. The dividing line became so clear, and in my reaction to it, I guess I wanted to try and help people out. I started donating things to raise money for bars closing down, I donated things for crew auctions and things like that. I’ve found it a really wonderful experience to see the community around the Bad Seeds, and around music, watching people rally I found really moving. I guess it was amplified by the whole experience of last year. You found people doing whatever they could, like delivering meals to people. We all get vulnerable at some stage in our lives, no matter who we are, and it’s people helping that can really mean a lot to those who are vulnerable and anyone vulnerable, and animals too.

There was all the rage machine and the dialogue going on last year, and everything with Trump seemed like it was spiralling into this terrible kind of scenario, and I don’t know, I have to believe in the good that we’re capable of. I made Carnage with Nick, wrote a book, I had to be creative. I know a bunch of people who felt the same way, that it was their way of navigating the situation, I guess.

You’ve been particularly busy, with Carnage, your album with Marianne Faithfull, the book Nina Simone’s Gum, and now the sanctuary. I was struck by something you said in the press material for the book, that it’s about ‘how something small can from beautiful connections between people’. That seems to be at the core of all these different things you’re doing.

WE: That’s what holds us together; just telling someone they look awesome can change their day! I think doing my book I was aware of how many people of all walks of life I’ve crossed paths with who have enabled me to do certain things or inspired me with an observation. I deeply need this kind of interaction. It’s funny because the park in many ways is a continuation of that story, of ideas that take flight with love and care, the imagination that’s being united in people by the simplest of things. With the book, one of the things I realised around this tiny little thing of absolutely nothing, the chewing gum, was that this beautiful thing was growing. Now feels like it’s rolled into this park. One day I’ll go there and I’ll put a sculpture of the chewing gum for the monkeys and the bears to play on.

What is your role with the park going forwards?

WE: We have to get the place built, and that’s really exciting! The people there know what they’re doing, they have a sanctuary next door and this is an extension of that, so we’ll leave that to the professionals. I’m going to help get it out there. I’ve been designing the website with Lorinda, it’s really just a couple of us engaged in it at the moment, and I plan to be as involved with it as I can.

Initially I didn’t want to do [publicity] and have it trumpeted everywhere, that wasn’t the reason for doing it. I wanted to enable these people. But then when we got the land and I realised that actually, you know, they are totally reliant on help. I realised that I could get it out to a larger audience. In the same way that when I’ve donated a guitar or a distortion pedal to an auction, I’ve obviously been very aware and self-conscious of trumpet blowing. But it’s really not about that at all. I realise that by actually remaining a shadow in the background I wasn’t serving my purpose. I’ve donated to things before and it goes into this hole in a way, you forget about it. But with this, suddenly I found myself trying to design a website. I just found it really fantastic.

With all that in mind, what can people do to support the initiative?

WE: All I would say is go to the website. That explains what it’s all about. It’s a chance to watch this beautiful idea grow, and it will grow. It’s strange, it was really like the night before putting a record out, I had all this anxiety and excitement about it. It has this very similar feeling to announcing something to the world, letting it ignite people’s imaginations. It just feels like this kind beautiful idea that can take flight if you want to. Help if you can, if you can’t it doesn’t matter, just watch. These people are everywhere. If this raises people’s awareness to look nearby at things like this, fabulous. It’s about shining a light on these things that feels important to me.

To find out more about Ellis Park Sanctuary, to donate to the cause or sponsor one of their animals, you can click here