With this year marking 10 years of animal magic, Sarah Freeman meets the team – and the star attractions – at Yorkshire Wildlife Park as it prepares to double in size with a £50m makeover.
Alongside promotions for grooming services and offers of second-hand saddles for sale, every so often the classified section of Horse and Hound throws up something a little more unusual.
And in 2008 it was also where an advertisement for a Doncaster riding school accidentally led to this corner of Yorkshire becoming a home to polar bears, big cats and two of the world’s last remaining black rhinos.
“All this was never supposed to happen,” says John Minion, looking out across the acres of lakes, woods and grasslands which are now the Yorkshire Wildlife Park. “Ten years ago, if you’d told us that we would be running our own animal park, I don’t think we’d have believed you.”
Back in 2008 John was a senior member of the Animal Department at Woburn Safari Park and along with the attraction’s Marketing Manager Cheryl Williams and her husband Neville, the trio came up to view the school and livery yard thinking it would potentially be a nice ‘lifestyle business’.
However, when they arrived all three had the same thought – they had stumbled on the perfect site for a new kind of wildlife attraction.
“We knew that visitors driving through safari parks liked the fact the animals had lots of space, but they often said they wished they didn’t have to spend so much time in their cars,” says John, now CEO of Yorkshire Wildlife Park.
“The three of us decided that this was the ideal place to create a park, which people could walk through and where you could get really close up to the animals.”
With the recession biting it wasn’t the best time to be going to the banks, but against the odds they managed to secure the finance and with already good contacts with leading breeding and conservation programmes, the seeds of YWP were sown.
Lemurs and painted dogs were among the first animals to arrive and having opened its doors to the public in 2009, the park began to quietly build its reputation. Then came the lions.
“That was the game changer,” says Cheryl, now Director at YWP. “A zoo in Romania was closing and it had put out a plea for help. With little income they’d barely been able to afford to feed any of the animals and the lions had survived on a diet of chicken scraps. The enclosures were also incredibly cramped and all they had known were concrete floors and metal bars.”
YWP was determined to help and as word of the lions’ plight reached Britain the now defunct News of the World launched a fundraising campaign on the park’s behalf. The money rolled in. However, while YWP soon had the £150,000 it needed to build the new enclosures, the move wasn’t entirely seamless.
There was a mass of bureaucracy to get through before the rescue was even possible and the team were still building the last of the fences on the seven-acre enclosure on the day the 13 lions, including two eight-month-old cubs, Dani and Simba, were flown over from Budapest in February 2010.
“When they arrived, they were in a bad way,” says Simon Marsh, the park’s animal collections manager. “They had been kept in such poor conditions that they had ulcers on their paws, they needed a specialist dentist and no one could be sure how they would adapt to their new home. However, it was amazing to see how quickly they improved and how easily they settled in. They are incredibly resilient and they soon began to thrive.
“Since then we have rescued numerous other animals, but the lions will always be special as it was the first time we really made a difference on a major scale. The world was watching and it really demonstrated what we were about.
“Yes, we are a tourist attraction, but underpinning everything we do is a concern for animal welfare.”
Since the arrival of those lions, YWP has established an international reputation for its conservation work and breeding programmes. Now home to 400 animals, from armadillos to zebras, it is known the world over for its expertise and 2014 represented another landmark when the park opened one of the world’s largest polar bear reserves.
“Isn’t he beautiful,” says Kim Wilkins as Victor, who was the first of the park’s four bears to arrive, strides across a reserve the size of eight football pitches. “Doncaster might not be the Arctic, but what people don’t realise is that in their native habitat polar bears spend long periods of time throughout the year on ground like this rather than on snow and ice, plus summer temperatures in the Arctic tundra can get quite high.”
Kim, who as carnivore team leader has arguably the best job title in the park, began her career at Bristol Zoo and worked with dolphins in Turkey as part of a therapy programme for autistic children before joining YWP. A specialist in behavioural training, her role is to ensure that the animals are mentally as well as physically fit.
“Each day, the easiest thing for us would be to say, ‘Right, you two are going to be together in this reserve and you two are going to go in this one’, but that’s boring for the polar bears and it’s not how we work. We want to keep them engaged and we want to make sure they are stimulated.
“That’s why we change where we put their food and we encourage them to take the initiative when it comes to deciding who they are going to hang out with. We can’t exactly replicate their native environment, but we can get pretty close.”
Kim has also trained the polar bears to present themselves for treatment if they need to receive medication and she has also been instrumental in reversing destructive behaviour often learnt as a result of being poorly treated. It’s painstaking work.
“We recently rehomed four brown bears from Japan and when they arrived one of them used to spend hours spinning around in a circle. It was heartbreaking to watch, but from the day they arrived we began working with them to reverse all that repetitive behaviour.
“Instead of putting food in their house, we put it outside so they had to forage for it. We rewarded positive behaviour and we ignored negative or destructive behaviour. Little by little we saw them change. You don’t get that kind of satisfaction in most jobs.”
There are more exciting times ahead for the park. This year a £50m expansion programme will see the park double in size. Plans include the building of a new visitor hub, restaurants and a hotel and of course, extra space for some new arrivals.
“When it comes to acquiring new species you don’t go out with a shopping list,” adds John.
“It’s about working out where we can make a difference and which animals need our support. We don’t want to reveal too much, but it’s going to be an exciting 12 months.”
While John and the rest of the team at YWP are keeping tight-lipped, if the last 10 years are anything to go by, this next chapter looks set to be spectacular. Watch this space.
In 2013 the YWP Foundation was established with the aim of making the world a better place for wild animals. As part of the charity’s work it supports numerous projects across the world – on every continent except Antarctica.
The foundation has funded a £34,500 initiative to protect lions at Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve. As well as recruiting more rangers to monitor the lions, it is also coordinating a computer mapping and data sharing system. YWPF also supports rhino protection projects in Kenya, polar bear conservation projects in Norway and North America and giant otters in Brazil.
With fewer than 1,000 living in the wild, Madagascar’s blue-eyed black lemurs are one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates. YWPF is funding a reserve to protect their habitat, ecotourism education projects and promoting research into these at-risk animals.
YWP works with the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria to determine which animals it should breed and it has had numerous successes over the years. In November 2016, Thabo, one of YWP’s painted dogs gave birth to seven puppies. In the 1900s more than 500,000 roamed across 39 African counties. Today there are fewer than 5,000 and they are the second most endangered carnivores in Africa.
Almost hunted to extinction, in the 1940s there were just 40 Amur tigers left in the world. Now numbers are gradually increasing and YWP is also playing its part. Last year one of its tigers was moved to a Scottish safari park so she could be paired with a male and hopefully have cubs of her own.
YWP is also part of an international breeding programme for Amur leopards. Two cubs, Anadyr and Teva, were born at the park in 2015 and will play a key role in the big cat reintroduction programme.
Walk past the okapi enclosure and you’ll hear the same question being asked again and again.
“They are beautiful, but what exactly are they?” The bemusement is understandable. Okapi have the legs of a zebra, the face of a giraffe, the body of a small horse – in short they look as though they have been hurriedly put together from the parts of a dozen other animals.
YWP’s okapis, Ruby and Nuru, arrived in 2018 and immediately became one of the park’s star attractions. Native to Central Africa these intriguing creatures were only discovered in 1901, but today only 10,000 are believed to be left in the wild. Okapis can only make three sounds, so listen closely and you might just hear them chuff, moan or make a little bleat.
This article was taken from This is Y 2019.