Creating Paradise in Broxbourne

We discover the story of how the Sampson family took on a run-down zoo and created Paradise Wildlife Park in Broxbourne and a world-renowned breeding centre in Kent...

In the beginning

PETER Sampson started in business in the mid 1960s, owning many different companies including a coach and bus company, MOT testing station, taxi business, travel agencies and a coach conversion company. But a desire to move into the leisure industry in the early 1980s prompted a search of hotels, nightclubs, pubs and leisure businesses.Peter knew Peter Phipps who owned Broxbourne Zoo. There has been a zoo on the site in Broxbourne Woods since the early 1960s. It was privately owned by Cyril Stamp up to the mid 70s and then Peter Phipps to 1984.

Sadly Broxbourne Zoo had been documented as having a poor standard of animal facilities at the time and the Sampson family saw a chance to turn this around, acquiring the site on April 1, 1984. The Zoo Licensing Act 1981 was being introduced at this time with the aim of raising the level of conditions and standards in wild animal husbandry and visitor facilities. Local media were sceptical, giving little hope of raising the necessary funds and meeting the criteria to achieve the granting of a zoo licence.

Starting from scratch

People questioned the sanity of the Sampsons. After all, who would wish to take on such a task, given the level of investment required, the general state of the site and the opinion of the public, who had witnessed first-hand, the less than perfect conditions at the zoo.

It was decided, following an initial visit by Government inspectors that the best way to achieve the conditions for a zoo licence was to cease operation while urgent work took place and the site closed on Christmas Day 1984.

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The initial phase involved removing many of the old buildings, animal cages and fencing. Improvements were made to the infrastructure, water supply, gas pipes and electricity supply, quickly followed by the re-housing of the lion, converting the old caf� and the provision of an animal food preparation room, vets room and staff room.

East Herts District Council granted a zoo licence in July 1985 and Paradise Park and Woodland Zoo officially opened at Easter 1986, two years after the Sampsons – including Peter’s son Steve and wife Angela – bought the site.

Focus on hard work

The hard work and investment to improve the animal enclosures, public facilities and to enhance the public perception of Paradise Park and Woodland Zoo continued throughout the 1980s. The second phase included new animal paddock buildings, improved pathways and tree planting.

The sale of other businesses allowed the family to concentrate solely on the management and development of Paradise Park and Woodland Zoo.In 1990 the name was changed to Paradise Wildlife Park to reflect the move towards environmental education and open enclosures for the animals.

The 90s saw the introduction of three themed adventure playgrounds, improved accommodation for the paddock animals, hedgerow and border planting, management of the ancient wood in association with the Countryside Management Service plus a move towards many ‘hands on’ activities with the animals at the park and an extensive on-site and off-site education programme. This correlated with a significant increase in visitors to Paradise Wildlife Park and in 1994, Tiger Lodge, a new purpose built enclosure for tigers, was also built.

There has been continued improvement since 2000 including new enclosures for meerkat, otter, Brazilian tapir, red panda and European wolf, Squirrel Monkey Island, Wonders of the Rainforest, Cheetah Retreat, Toucan House, workshops and maintenance facilities, the ARC (Animal Resource Centre) which houses a veterinary and recovery room, animal food preparation areas, animal records and research room, staff room and staff overnight accommodation.

There has been extensive work on the paddock areas to improve drainage, overflow car parking facilities, improvements to the water supply, visitor toilets and disabled facilities, which include The Special Place play area adapted for use by children in wheelchairs.

Creating a sanctuary

In 2001 parent company Parkside Leisure purchased the site of the Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent, managed by the Born Free Foundation but owned by Malcolm Dudding who approached the Sampsons. A new organisation was established by Paradise Wildlife Park called the Wildlife Heritage Foundation.

WHF supports conservation and assists with endangered species breeding programmes, with a view to re-introducing them to their home territories. The Big Cat Sanctuary is not open to the public but does offer experience packages which help support it financially. It is home to arguably the most important collection of big cats in Europe and houses some of the world’s rarest including the Amur Leopard (for which WHF and PWP are the global branding partners), north Chinese leopard, Sumatran and Amur tigers.

A new project to build eight wooden lodges at WHF will be completed this year and will allow guests to stay overnight and discover more about the work at the Big Cat Sanctuary.

Moving forward

Paradise Wildlife Park has seen lots of new developments in recent years. These include a new Snow Leopard enclosure, On Safari Adventure Golf course, Tiger Falls Gold Panning and children’s craft area, a new Reptile House, improved children’s rides, a new Visitor Services Centre and a new quarantine section.

The Rainforest building has been revamped and renamed Wonders of the Rainforest with birds, small mammals and small primates while the Birds of Paradise arena and bird aviaries improved. Tiger Lodge has been renovated and renamed Big Cat Territory. There have also been improvements to paddocks with water features, climbing towers, visitor viewing windows and platforms. Other projects have included an enclosure for African penguins, the introduction of white lions, white tigers, the National Speedway Museum, the Tumble Jungle Indoor play area with a coffee bar and the rebuilding of the Event Marquee area with the creation of a Secret Garden.

There has also been the addition of Gibbons, Tiger Treetops coffee shop, the Big Cat Walk, the Discovery Centre and for 2012 a new main entrance building and Welcome Centre. Housed within the Welcome Centre are three apartments, which guests visiting the Park can hire to enhance their stay or animal experience.

Friends of Paradise Wildlife Park was established in 2006 and is headed up by park director Lynn Whitnall, Peter’s daughter, along with a team of trustees and volunteers. It holds events each year to raise and subsequently donate money to conservation projects both at home and overseas.

After nearly 30 years of continued improvements, the Sampson family have no plans to stop and continue to develop Paradise Wildlife Park with the aim to be the most successful and best small zoo in Britain.

The Discovery Centre opened in 2008 and is dedicated to the provision of education and corporate events. It is fully equipped with audio-visual, sound, plasma screens, classrooms, flip charts, kitchen, boardrooms, meeting rooms and offices. It also has an induction loop in the classrooms and access for wheelchairs. The first floor in the Discovery Centre houses the main administration centre for the Park.

2010 saw the addition of more land. Paradise Wildlife Park purchased an additional four acres which is being held in case of a requirement for additional over-flow car parking. Another eight acres was purchased in Kent with land adjoining the Big Cat Sanctuary.

Paradise Wildlife Park has established an excellent reputation in the field of wildlife conservation through its work to establish and fund Project Life Lion which is helping to save many species in East Africa from the plight of canine distemper virus and rabies. One of the biggest achievements was returning two lionesses to Africa, sent from Broxbourne to the Ugandan Wildlife Education Centre in Entebbe in 2009.

The park will host the BIAZA National Zoo Conference from June 14-16 when guest speakers will include Giles Clark, Head of Tigers at Australia Zoo