Staff at Bristol Zoo bid a fond farewell to Clifton site

·4-min read
Otis, a one-year-old lesser Malay mouse-deer, is fed by keeper Dani Thatcher at Bristol Zoo Gardens ahead of its closure on Saturday (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
Otis, a one-year-old lesser Malay mouse-deer, is fed by keeper Dani Thatcher at Bristol Zoo Gardens ahead of its closure on Saturday (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

Bristol Zoo is expecting a bumper crowd this Saturday as it prepares to close its doors after 186 years and move to a new site.

The zoo opened its doors in Clifton in 1836, making it the fifth oldest zoo in the world, and it still has many of its original Victorian buildings, such as its gate house, the old giraffe house and its monkey temple.

Its owner, the Bristol Zoological Society, made the decision to close it due to financial pressures caused by the pandemic, and focus its resources on its sister site in south Gloucestershire.

Bristol Zoo Gardens opened in 1837 and still has some of its original buildings (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
Bristol Zoo Gardens opened in 1837 and still has some of its original buildings (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

The society has owned the site of the Wild Place Project, just off Junction 17 of the M5, since the 1960s, but for many years had only used it for breeding and quarantine purposes and it was not open to visitors.

It was also used as a nursery for Bristol Zoo’s botanical gardens, and to grow fodder for its animals.

But in 2008 the society submitted plans to the council for a 55-hectare walking safari park, and Wild Place opened five years later.

Staff at the zoo said they are sad to be leaving the famous Bristol city site, which still sits within its Victorian walls, but are excited by the conservation opportunities presented by the more spacious facilities in Gloucestershire.

A ring-tailed lemur looks at a keeper at Bristol Zoo Gardens (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
A ring-tailed lemur looks at a keeper at Bristol Zoo Gardens (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

Dr Grainne McCabe, head of field conservation and science, said the move will allow the zoo to expand its work protecting some of the world’s most threatened species.

“Bristol Zoo is one of those classic zoos – it originally started as a menagerie, as many zoos did, and it has a lot of history here,” she said.

She added: “Just being able to walk around these sort of small grounds and see so many different species, it’s something that’s quite reminiscent of what zoos were always like in the past and there’s something quite special about that.”

Asked what she is most excited about with the big move, Dr McCabe said: “One of the best things I think about Wild Place is it will be much more like what I feel like when I go in the forest in the wild to see the animals.

“So, as you walk into what might be a large exhibit, but actually it feels like their native habitat – you may see the animal, you may not, which is exactly how I feel when I do my work in the forest.”

Reptile keeper Laura Cosgrove carries out a health check on 40-year-old giant tortoise Helen at Bristol Zoo Gardens (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
Reptile keeper Laura Cosgrove carries out a health check on 40-year-old giant tortoise Helen at Bristol Zoo Gardens (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

Dr McCabe said some of the animals might struggle with the change, but added: “I think that, in the end, it will be a much, much more enjoyable experience for them in a more natural enclosure, and so it really is the best thing for these animals to be moving up to this new site.”

She added: “With the move to the new zoo, what’s going to be really exciting is a lot more of our animals on site – over 80% in the beginning and 90% eventually – will be linked to our conservation work.”

Simon Garrett has worked at the Bristol Zoo for 32 years, having taken a summer job there in 1989, and and is now head of public engagement.

He said Bristol Zoological Society will be forced to sell the Clifton site in order to expand Wild Place, but is keen to leave a lasting legacy in the city.

“We’re not just selling to a developer and running off with the money. Absolutely not,” he said.

“This is something we’re working hard to make sure it’s part of our legacy we can be proud of.”

The animals at Bristol Zoo are moving to the Wild Place Project in south Gloucestershire, which is 10 times the size of its current site (Jordan Jones/Bristol Zoo Gardens/PA) (PA Media)
The animals at Bristol Zoo are moving to the Wild Place Project in south Gloucestershire, which is 10 times the size of its current site (Jordan Jones/Bristol Zoo Gardens/PA) (PA Media)

Under plans currently under consideration, the site would retain its botanic gardens and they would be open to the public free of charge on a daily basis.

It would retain famous structures such as the monkey temple, while the entrance buildings would be transformed into the “Clifton Conservation Hub”, hosting the Avon Gorge and Downs Wildlife Project.

The children’s play area and theatre building would also be kept open as a community space for workshops and events.

The rest of the site would be devoted to eco-friendly housing with energy efficiency integral to the design.

– Bristol Zoo Gardens will open to the public for the last time from 9am to 5.30pm on Saturday September 3.