Wildlife crusader Simon Cowell: 'When I collapsed from executive burn-out I realised that I really wanted to work with injured animals'
Much like his X Factor namesake, Simon Cowell has a few wild tales to tell - but the stars of his world are of the four-legged and furry variety. As his memoir is published, the City trader turned animal rescuer tells Hannah Stephenson about running a wildlife charity
Wildlife crusader Simon Cowell can often get better tables in restaurants because he shares his name with a certain music mogul.
But that's where the connection ends. He's never met his more famous namesake, and his life couldn't be further removed from that of the X Factor impresario.
In his all-encompassing job as head of his charity Wildlife Aid, he's been bitten by hedgehogs, gored by deer, and had an owl's talons embedded into his scalp while on air. Many of these anecdotes are charted in his memoir, My Wild Life.
"Once, an antler just missed the side of my jugular by about an inch," recalls the 64-year-old. "But when you corner an aggressive deer with big antlers, they think you're going to kill them so would fight back as you would."
Cowell had to rebuild the rescue centre after a blaze in 1996, caused by a faulty freezer, razed it to the ground, but remains undeterred and passionate about his cause.
A forthright, witty character not averse to swearing - charity patron Ricky Gervais once described him as 'David Attenborough with Tourette's' - Cowell is a rocket, one moment rescuing foxes, badgers, birds or other creatures with his team of 350 volunteers, the next rallying to raise funds or starting a new campaign.
He rarely takes a holiday, works seven days a week, and admits his long-term girlfriend Stani puts up with a lot.
"I'm like a blunderbuss. I'm all over the place but I love the challenges, especially when you are rescuing something. You never know what you are going out to. It's all about thinking on your feet.
"This morning we had a call about a deer with a broken leg, I went out to look at a fox, it's been mad."
He always talks calmly and softly to the animals he is rescuing.
"A calming voice helps and I think it's a gift I have. I hate using the word 'whisperer' because that's a load of b*******, but I have a synergy that I can't explain and I'm lucky to have it."
Hundreds of animals are housed at his centre at any one time, including injured ones and orphans, nursed and fed until they're fit enough to be released.
He has strict rules never to befriend them, because as soon as they develop a relationship with a human it drastically reduces their chances of returning successfully to the wild.
Cowell's latest vision is to build a wildlife hospital, next to a commercial veterinary hospital near a major teaching unit with wetlands and marshes (he needs to raise £5.5m).
It's a far cry from his life in the Eighties as a commodities trader in the City, making huge amounts of money and living the high-rolling lifestyle that went with it. He admits he neglected his (now ex) wife Jill and didn't see his two daughters grow up. "Looking back, I loved money," he reflects.
But while his colleagues blew their bonuses on designer gear, in 1980, Cowell set up a wildlife sanctuary in the grounds of his stockbroker belt home in Leatherhead, Surrey, which, seven years later, became Wildlife Aid.
In the early days, Jill ran the centre during the day, and Cowell would go out on rescues at weekends. But the strains of working in the City took their toll. "The pressure was just horrendous and it creeps up on you, and it all went hugely wrong" - and he suffered two nervous breakdowns.
"They called it executive burnout; I rather like that," he muses. "I blacked out on a train, then went to pieces and they kept taking me to hospital. I just cracked up. The thing that nipped that in the bud was when I was fired. I felt my shoulders rise about six feet higher than they had been."
He was eventually sacked, and only then did he realise that rescuing animals was really what he wanted to do.
At 42, Cowell answered his calling. Not only did he run the charity, but he also presented, wrote and produced Channel 5 and Animal Planet series Wildlife SOS for 16 years until the show was axed.
Demands for more sensational wildlife stories are ever-growing, he says.
"They want the stupid stuff, the man being bitten by an alligator, or something ridiculous happening, which I think is sad. We need to portray wildlife with reality.
"I don't think you should fudge it or make it up. Steve Irwin is a typical example. He did an incredible amount of good but in the end he had his zoo - and don't get me started on zoos because I hate them with a vengeance.
"But the picture they had in the paper the day after he died was of the whole family with a cheetah on a collar and lead in front of them. That just makes me want to bang my head against the wall because it's the wrong impression to give.
"He went up to animals and he goaded them. You should only ever approach a wild animal when it's in trouble. If it's doing its own thing and is happy, watch it from a distance.
"I really rate The Blue Planet," he continues. "I want to be the next David Attenborough. I would love to get another TV series."
He says around 70% of the animals which go into his rescue centre are released back into the wild. The other 30% are euthanised, if they cannot be released or fail to recover from injuries.
"It sounds hard. We will do anything to get that animal back regardless of species, but if that animal cannot survive in the wild, I'm not going to keep it in captivity for the next five or 10 years."
He's seen horrific things on his travels, from lions in Zambia who are taken by poachers and bred for trophy-hunting, to the bear bile industry in Vietnam - the bile is used in Chinese medicine - where bears are stuck in cages having bile painfully extracted from their gall bladder every week.
He hopes exposing these practices will help educate the public, which is the only real way to bring about change.
He is starting a new campaign this year called I DOT (I Do One Thing), to encourage everyone to do one action to help the environment.
"If everybody did one action, say picking up a rubber band once a day or moving a bit of glass, or planting something insect-friendly, then that would be 29 billion actions a year in the UK alone," says Cowell.
"That is starting to make a difference."
My Wild Life by Simon Cowell is published by Michael O'Mara, priced £12.99. Available now