|Location||Paignton, Devon, England|
|Land area||80 acres (32 ha)|
|No. of animals||Over 2,000|
|No. of species||Over 250|
|Major exhibits||Reptile Tropics, Crocodile Swamp, Ape Centre, Lemur Wood, Monkey Heights|
Paignton Zoo is a zoo in Paignton, Devon, England. The zoo was started as a private collection by avid animal collector and breeder, Herbert Whitley, in the grounds of his home Primley House. It was opened to the public on a number of occasions, originally as Primley Zoological Gardens, and closed twice due to disputes with the tax authorities. The commercialisation of the zoo came when animals and attractions were relocated from Chessington Zoo during World War II, and the site was named as Devon's Zoo and Circus
On Whitley's death, the zoo was signed over to a trust, now called the Wild Planet Trust, to be run as a public attraction. The zoo has a collection of about 2,000 animals representing nearly 300 species, and cultivates about 1,600 different species of plant. It employs 140 permanent staff, rising to over 200 in peak season.
Herbert Whitley was an avid collector and breeder of animals, started after the gift of two canaries by his mother as a child, and had inherited a family fortune made in brewing prior to the death of his father, MP Edward Whitley. He moved with three of his four siblings to Devon, and after studying agriculture at Cambridge University, returned and went in to business with his brother, William. They bought agricultural land holdings, and set about breeding prime livestock.
Herbert's home, with his mother and sister, at Primley House was the centre of the breeding operation. As well as the livestock, Herbert set about trying to breed many types of animal, and was particularly obsessive about producing blue animals. He filled the large amount of outbuildings of the estate with animals of all types. He acquired an increasing number of exotics, including a chimpanzee called Bonny Mary, who appeared in the press as "the cleverest chimp in England".
First public opening and closure
In July 1923, Herbert decided to open his collection to the public as Primley Zoological Gardens. Employees of the Torquay Tramway Company were amongst the first to visit the site prior to its official opening.
In the month of opening, the park was visited by an officer of the Inland Revenue, who informed Herbert that he should be charging an 'amusement tax' on ticket sales. Whitley declined to do so, stating that his park was educational rather than entertainment. He was then summonsed to appear at court in Paignton, which happened on 21 March 1924, where the magistrates found in favour of the Inland Revenue.
Whitley immediately closed the park to the public, posting notices on the entrances, explaining the dispute and naming the justices involved in the case.
MR. HERBERT WHITLEY (the Owner) DOES NOT INTEND TO DEFRAUD THE PUBLIC BY CHARGING TAX WHERE NO ENTERTAINMENT EXISTS, AND CONSEQEUENTLY, WITH MUCH REGRET, HAS DECIDED TO CLOSE THE GROUNDS TO THE PUBLIC
Whitley continued to publicly feud with the revenue and magistrates, including raising a petition, and engaging in publicity denouncing the taxing. This led to replies in local press from the magistrates. Herbert had some history of clashing with authority, having fought the Paignton Urban District over his refusal to allow surveyors to access his land with a view to placing sewage and sanitation works, which he also lost at court and at appeal.
Second opening and closure
In 1927, Herbert agreed to reopen the zoo, and pay the contentious entertainment tax.
In 1934, the zoo opened a new "Tropical House", for which visitors had to pay an extra fee, and this once again attracted the attention of the Inland Revenue, who insisted that the tax be additionally paid on that fee. Whitley once again refused, and once again lost at court, closing the zoo for a second time in protest.
Herbert continued to collect and breed, along with his brother William. Around the outbreak of World War II, he was considering reducing his collection to just his extensive collection of pigeons. Both he and William were exempt war service on grounds of their health, and when Chessington Zoo needed to evacuate their animals, Herbert agreed to house them at Primley, and so ended up with a large collection. The relocation included not only animals, such as lions and tigers, but also the miniature railway (which ran until 2022) and entire circus including the clowns and acrobats.
Whilst Herbert remained involved, Chessington's Reginald Goddard ran much of the operations, operating the site as Devon's Zoo and Circus with a focus on entertainment and profit which had never been part of Whitley's style. The zoo was run as "Devon's Zoo and Circus" and Goddard brought in a wide range of attractions from play areas to bands.
After the war in 1946 Chessington reopened, and most of the Chessington animals returned to their Surrey home, but the circus remained until 1953, and the miniature railway lasted until 2022.
Following the departure of Goddard, Whitley formed a new partnership with local accountant Norman Dixon, and the zoo became Paignton Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
Death of Whitley and trust
When Herbert Whitley died in 1955, the Herbert Whitley Trust was set up to continue his work. The trust was later renamed to the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT), and this was again renamed in 2019 to the Wild Planet Trust. The trust also owns and operates Newquay Zoo and previously also ran Living Coasts on Torquay seafront. His estates also included the site of several local nature reserves in Devon, including Slapton Ley, now also owned by the trust.
Growth as a trust
The zoo continued to grow as a trust, and in 1961 WE Francis was appointed as General Manager, along with the zoo's first full time education officer, who was appointed in conjunction with Devon County Council education committee.
Attendances continued to grow, with 346k visitors in 1962 and 353k in 1963.
The trust continued to add more exotic animals, adding to the elephants that Whitley has brought to the zoo in 1949. This included giraffes in 1968, and baboons in 1976. The trust also built visitor facilities such as the main restaurant.
In 1995, the zoo received £2.9 million from the European Regional Development Fund, allowing major facilities upgrades which lasted until 2001. This included the building of the Marie Le Fevre ape centre, the new elephant and giraffe house, and the Reptile Tropics attraction.
In the Great Gorilla Project during 2013, life-sized gorillas were placed across Devon for charity and £100,000 was raised.
The 2016 Great Big Rhino Project raised £123,000 for conservation.
Duchess, the zoo's only African Elephant, died in July 2019.
In 2022, the last remnant of the Chessington arrivals left when the miniature railway closed.
- African lion
- African pygmy goat
- Azara's agouti
- Black howler
- Black rhinoceros
- Bornean orangutan
- Brazilian guinea pig
- Brown spider monkey
- Celebes crested macaque
- Cherry-crowned mangabey
- Collared peccary
- Common dwarf mongoose
- Common squirrel monkey
- Cotton-top tamarin
- Diana monkey
- Eastern bongo
- Emperor tamarin
- Goeldi's marmoset
- Hamadryas baboon
- Hartmann's mountain zebra
- King colobus
- Kirk's dik-dik
- Lar gibbon
- Maned wolf
- Mishmi takin
- Ouessant sheep
- Pied tamarin
- Pileated gibbon
- Pygmy marmoset
- Pygmy slow loris
- Red-fronted lemur
- Red panda
- Red river hog
- Red ruffed lemur
- Ring-tailed lemur
- Rothschild's giraffe
- Short-beaked echidna
- South American tapir
- Southern three-banded armadillo
- Sumatran tiger
- Swamp wallaby
- Western grey kangaroo
- Western lowland gorilla
- Black hornbill
- Bourke's parrot
- Brown eared pheasant
- Chilean flamingo
- Eclectus parrot
- Edwards's pheasant
- Great argus
- Greater roadrunner
- Grey crowned crane
- Marabou stork
- North Island brown kiwi
- Oriental stork
- Pink pigeon
- Princess parrot
- Red-crowned crane
- Red-necked ostrich
- Roseate spoonbill
- Scarlet ibis
- Socorro dove
- Southern cassowary
- Southern screamer
- Spectacled owl
- Sumatran laughingthrush
- Toco toucan
- Wattled crane
- White-faced whistling duck
- Wrinkled hornbill
- Aldabra giant tortoise
- Annam leaf turtle
- Blue tree monitor
- Boyd's forest dragon
- Chinese crocodile lizard
- Common flat-tail gecko
- Cuban crocodile
- Emerald tree boa
- False gharial
- Fea's tree frog
- Komodo dragon
- Lesser Antillean iguana
- Mangrove monitor
- Nguru pygmy chameleon
- Northern caiman lizard
- Red-eyed tree frog
- Red-footed tortoise
- Red-tailed ratsnake
- Reticulated python
- Saltwater crocodile
- Solomon Islands skink
- Yellow-banded poison dart frog
- Yellow-headed water monitor
Incidents and escapes
During its history, the zoo has had a number of animal escapes and incidents.
In January 1939, Whilst back as a private zoo after closing due to the argument with the Inland Revenue, a leopard escaped its enclosure after mauling its keeper, John Hockings. The animal stayed on zoo grounds, and repeated attempts were made to lure it into a cage trap with meat. The leopard did not take the bait, and went on the move, killing a flock of rare St Kilda sheep. The risk of the animal moving from the grounds led to beaters being brought in to flush the animal, which was shot dead at close range by Major Simon A Yorke of the 152nd Devon Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery using his service rifle.
During the return of animals to Chessington Zoo in May 1946, a grass monkey was found to be absent from its enclosure. After a number of hours of armed searching, the monkey returned to the cage by itself.
The same zookeeper involved in the leopard incident, John Hockings, was badly mauled by a North American brown bear in 1948 after the then 77 year old failed to secure the safety door between the inner and outer cages during cleaning in December 1948.
A large black-necked stork escaped the zoo in August 1954, and was living in the marshy areas around Newton Abbot and Exminster, making it as far as Clyst Honiton before being recaptured after around two weeks at large.
Intruders to the zoo in December 1959 cut enclosure wire, causing four wallabies to escape. Whilst three were quickly rounded up, one wallaby named Sue escaped into the wider zoo grounds, and evaded capture for over two weeks. Wallabies once again escaped in 1964, with four going missing in February of that year.
A sonic boom at around 2am in the morning over Paignton in 1961 disturbed the animals and caused a stallion zebra to escape into surrounding woods, where a range of people, including tourists, joined in the hunt. A tapir also escaped, but was found and recaptured within zoo grounds.
The largest escapee was in January 1964 when Indian elephant Jumbo escaped and was at liberty for over six hours. The escape came following the death of her long term companion Hospie. Whilst the elephant did remain on zoo grounds, street lighting was doused on nearby streets, and people told to stay in their homes, and the army was on stand by.
Visitors were locked down inside buildings when a peccary escaped into public areas of the zoo. It was tranquilised and recaptured after around 40 minutes. Two of the same species of wild pig escaped into the nearby giraffe enclosure three years later in April 2008.
A lechwe antelope jumped out of its enclosure in September 2016, after fighting with the dominant male. The zoo euthanised the animal, as it could not be placed safely back in the enclosure, and there were no other zoos able to take it.
Three Western lowland gorillas escaped from their enclosure into a secure corridor in July 2017, where they were left overnight, during which time they managed to cause thousands of pounds of damage to utility supplies, including water pipes, ducts, and electrical wiring.
Following a closure for bird flu in September 2022, on the first day of reopening, the zoo was evacuated due to the escape of two lar gibbons. The gibbons were recaptured, but opening to the public the following day was also delayed whilst the escape was investigated.
Paignton Zoo is a member of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) - holding the vice-chair position until 2025 - and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). Its gardens are members of PlantNetwork, Plant Heritage, the Arboricultural Association, and Botanic Gardens Conservation International. It works with partner zoos and gardens in these organisations on the management of captive breeding and plant conservation programmes for endangered species.
Education and research
The zoo has a large education team which teaches approximately 50,000 students each year from under-5s to post-16s, as well as adult community groups.
The Education Department was founded in 1961 and the Paignton Zoo Science Department was established in 1997, during the redevelopment programme. Now renamed the Field Conservation and Research Department, it has grown to become a well-known zoo science departments in Europe, with staff engaged in a programme of projects within the zoo, at Wild Planet Trust's other sites in the UK, and at various sites overseas. Projects are carried out at 'A' level, undergraduate and post graduate level.
Garden themes and plant collections include a broad collection of temperate hardy trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants arranged by habitat type. The indoor growing areas allow the zoo to grow plants from all over the world, ranging from small critically endangered cactus in the desert house, through to the massive Titan arum, giant bamboo and giant water lilies located in the tropical houses.
The zoo has been the setting for a number of television programmes.
ITV Westcountry filmed the documentary Zoo Story at Paignton Zoo, which was broadcast in 2004 and narrated by Ruth Langsford. A book based on the series was also published in 2005, called "Zoo Story: Paignton Zoo and the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust".
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