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Bristol Zoo’s Wendy Walton: Where the Wild Place Is

Bristol Zoological Gardens is one of the UK’s leading zoos, and one of the oldest in the world.  

Opened in 1836, and relatively small by modern standards, it is nevertheless a sizeable operation with an annual attendance of over 600 thousand, a unique and innovative gorilla enclosure and ambitious plans for the future.

The site itself is a botanical gardens  with many spectacular trees. At the forefront of conservation and Wendy Walton bristol zoo commercial directoreducation initiatives worldwide,  the zoo’s mission statement is, “Bristol Zoo Gardens maintains and defends biodiversity through breeding endangered species, conserving threatened species and habitats and promoting a wider understanding of the natural world”. 

Blooloop spoke to Wendy Walton (right), Director of Commercial Operations at Bristol Zoo about the work of the Zoo, the route which brought her to her current role, the challenges involved and her plans and achievements.

Wildfowl and Politicians

Walton has a strong background in marketing, having spent the earlier part of her career running big entertainment venues.

For more than fifteen years she was Programme and Marketing Manager at The Brighton Centre, the biggest arena on the South Coast, dealing with rock and pop concerts, ice shows, tennis and party political conferences.

“It was my job to get the bookings in and then to sell the tickets. Then I was lured away to open up a recently refurbished Grade 1 stately home, to set up a new business from scratch as an events and conferencing venue on the outskirts of Brighton. I did that for a couple of years – my first foray into the private sector – then I got the job running one of the Wildfowl and Wetland Centres on the South Coast, in Arundel, as Centre Manager.”

She was there for two years, before seeing the job at Bristol Zoo advertised. “I thought: Wow: that sounds amazing – I’m going to go for that. And here I am, five years later. “

Bristol Zoo and Gorillas go way back

Having joined the zoo, Walton instigated a unique project (and a career highlight) both in Bristol Zoo and across the city with the groundbreaking – and subsequently much emulated – ‘Wow! Gorillas’. In an event that brought visitors, residents, schools and artists together and highlighted the vital conservation work undertaken by the zoo, artists decorated 61 life-size gorillas which were placed in strategic locations across the city for ten weeks, then sold at auction.

“So that was my project. It was the first time that kind of project had run in Bristol, and it was also the first time that a zoo had done it. For a small charity to be putting it on was also new, and it was a huge success, and an amazing thing to be involved with.” 

The project spoke directly to the people of Bristol who have a special place in their hearts for gorillas: the very first gorilla in captivity – his name was Alfred, and he is now stuffed and in the city museum  – was at Bristol Zoo. 

“The people of Bristol are very fond of that gorilla. He’s part of the history and heritage of this city, and putting the life-size gorillas across Bristol was amazing – it took me about a week before I realised the impact the trial was having. It was just phenomenal and was an amazing success and so was the end result . We were hoping the hammer price would be around the £100, 000 mark, but it turned out to be nearer £430, 000. It was huge, and for a small zoo to put something like that on, it was unprecedented.

wow! gorillas bristol zoo

“We’re all very proud of that event, and I am, in particular, because that was my thing. It was tremendous fun, and it was brilliant because it was free for people just to wander round and look at the gorillas. It was about reaching out beyond the zoo walls into the community. That’s what we really wanted to do, and bring gorilla conservation out there as a huge message, so it ticked lots of boxes.”

Some new initiatives Walton has planned for the future include bringing animatronic dinosaurs to the zoo, after their successful debut two years ago, and animatronic bugs are on next year’s agenda. 

“These kinds of things tend to do the rounds of zoos. It’s very difficult to find appropriate events to run in a zoo, particularly a small zoo like Bristol Zoo, which is a very small site in the middle of the city. We can’t do things russell howard in a red t shirtthat make too much noise because of our animals. But this year, for example, we did something new: we did the Giggle for Gorillas night in a tent in the middle of the zoo, and comedian Russell Howard (right) kindly donated his time and did that gig for us. It’s about trying to do new things and being a bit creative and doing things differently as frequently as possible rather than just repeating and repeating.”

Bristol Zoo is, first and foremost, a conservation and education charity, and that has to be the first consideration. To carry out that conservation work both within the zoo and worldwide in the wild, the charity needs to raise funds: it receives no external or government funding.

Zoos have to fulfil the dual functions of focusing on animal welfare and conservation while simultaneously operating as visitor attractions. Walton does not believes the twin objectives are necessarily contradictory: it is, she says, about balance.

“Everyone here, whether they’re on my commercial team or whether they’re in the conservation team – we’re all working for the same aim, and what we want is for our guests to come in and have a fabulous and fun day out – the entertainment side – but also to go away having learned something, and feeling passionate about conservation. Those two aims are absolutely embedded in each other. We’ve worked really hard, particularly in the last two or three years, to merge the two so that there isn’t any conflict and we’re working to the same end.”

She explains,  “ So when we’re choosing commercial partners, for example – our catering is outsourced and our retail is outsourced –  we absolutely make sure that those commercial partners are on that same page as well in terms of their procurement and so on: we want to work with people who share our philosophy. bristol zoo logo on green backgroundOtherwise, it would become a conflict, I’m sure.

“Do people come here because we’re a conservation and education charity? No they don’t. They come to have a great family day out. But actually we’re noticing more and more that people are really getting that message, and that’s exciting. So no,  it’s not a conflict, in our view.”

There is, of course, controversy surrounding the issue of keeping some wild animals in captivity, particularly in a city zoo such as Bristol where space is at a premium.

“That’s why at Bristol Zoo we no longer have elephants and giraffes, for example. We were known for those in years gone by, but we don’t have them any more for welfare reasons: we simply don’t have the space. We do get some guests turning up for the first time a bit disappointed that we don’t have the very big animals that perhaps they were expecting, but we always explain why not, and, you know, we have a huge amount of animals here for people to see which are all very interesting, but we would not put any animal in if we didn’t have space for it.

“We do have a couple of Asiatic lions (below), but actually lions in the wild don’t need huge amounts of space – like elephants, for example. And there’s a lot of space in our lion enclosures that our guests don’t see, so they’ve got more space than is first apparent. Animal welfare is absolutely our priority.”

asiatic lions at bristol zoo

Where The Wild Place Is

“That’s one of the positive things about having a second site. We want to make them very different, and for the Wild Place Project we do have the space and we are hoping to bring in some very big animals over the next few years. We have plans to bring in giraffes in 2016, which will be really exciting.”

The Wild Place Project is the opening of the zoo’s second site; a 130 acre plot comprising ancient woodland, pasture and meadows on the outskirts of the city, just off the M5.

Walton points out,  “… if you were to choose a venue for a new attraction then the M5/ M4 corridor would bewild place project logo right up there on your wish-list. We’ve owned that land for 60 years. It’s on the other side of the city but not in the city, and has a lot more space, and that’s one of the advantages of that site – that it has the space to grow, which we just can’t do here in Clifton”.

“It has been a long time coming, and it’s an amazing experience – the opportunity to open a new zoo, as it were; a new attraction. That’s a kind of once-in-a-career opportunity. Very challenging but fun; enormously exciting; trying to work out what we should put up there for a very limited budget and just watching that grow and develop, hopefully, over the next few years.… a huge space; a really nice mixed site – and  a huge opportunity to do something really special out there.”

The zoo made plans in 2010 for a project called the National Wildlife Conservation Park;  an enormous project that will cost in the region of £120 million pounds, and has full planning permission to go ahead with the project.

However,  “What we don’t have at the moment is £120 million. We’ve been figuring out what to do: we’ve got this really amazing site; we’ve got the planning permission but we don’t have the finance, so we basically decided to open something smaller and then grow it organically. Hopefully that will provide the impetus for us to go in and procure more funds from elsewhere. So that’s what we’ve done: our opening offer was about a million pounds spend – a much reduced thing.”

Nevertheless, the zoo is going ahead on a reduced scale but keeping to the original idea of the NWCP project, which is a little different from the traditional zoo model and focuses on creating a series of ecosystems and the showcasing of animals from threatened ecosystems around the world.

“…For example, there would be a Sumatran rainforest exhibit with Sumatran tigers and orang-utans. The idea is that we would have a ranger station here in our park, and would hook up with a project out in Sumatra. It’s about showcasing what we do in the wild; our conservation projects worldwide, and kind of building from that. Our opening offer is quite small, but we’re still sticking to the principle of what we want to do.”

There are some constraints to being a charitable body, which can occasionally make raising funds complicated.

building a fire with kids wild place project education

“That’s probably where the commercial versus charity is tricky, because I think there is a perception of Bristol Zoo that we’re a big commercial organisation, and we do have to work quite hard to remind people that we are a charity. There are pros and cons, of course: we have to abide by the charitable aims but I don’t see that as a con in any sense of the word. So it’s not a limiting factor, but persuading people to give us money is not necessarily easy because as I said, they see us as a tourist attraction and make assumptions about funding – that we would have plenty.

“I think also it’s because the zoo is so old – people presume there’s a huge list of funders and donors, and of course we do have people who have helped us a lot: we’ve been building up our corporate support over the past couple of years. But we’re only a little charity, at the end of the day, and that’s difficult in a city where there are some very big charities out there with much bigger resources to raise money.”

two baby egyptian tortoises at bristol zoo

Gate revenue provides the bulk of the income, along with a 30, 000 strong membership scheme, and there are a number of secondary income streams including catering – there is a function suite on site for weddings, conferences and so forth. The zoo has expanded its programme of public events over the last few years – another source of revenue.

“And there’s the shop, of course. That’s very important as well – everybody wants to take away a souvenir, fortunately. And this year we finally built an extension to our shop…And then we do things like animal experiences, which has been a growing thing in the last few years, so people can come along and work with our amazing keepers and learn a little bit more about what they do and what the animals need every day. Those kinds of schemes make a lot of money for us.”

Another income source is the fact that the zoo’s vets offer a consultancy service. Walton, a self-confessed rabbit enthusiast, adds,  “ We have one of the top rabbit vets in the UK working here in our veterinary team: they are actually an exotic species along with other zoo animals.”

Funding is vital: it is what drives the global conservation initiatives for which the zoo is known. Walton spoke about some of them.

Gorilla at bristol zoo

Gorillas, Penguns and Crayfish

“One particular stand-out project is our gorilla project. We’ve got our amazing animals in the zoo and they’re part of our breeding programme, but we also work out in Cameroon with gorillas in the wild, and work very closely with the sanctuary out there, and that’s a really great project because we work with the local communities and with schools out in Cameroon to try to help them find more sustainable ways of living than perhaps killing the gorillas for bush-meat. We also have our vets go out there and work with the gorillas, and sometimes that might work the other way: we get people from Africa coming to work with us here, so it’s a really nice two-way thing.”

She adds,  “We also do work in the UK. We have a white-clawed crayfish project which is about working to preserve that species, which is at threat from an invasive species of crayfish. And the latest one, of course, is penguins – everyone has gone penguin crazy, so we’re ramping up our penguin thing here.”

The zoo has project partners out in South Africa where penguins are threatened by the results of oil spills, and research is being conducted towards establishing new breeding colonies of penguins in places that are more suitable for their long-term survival.

Penguins chick at bristol zoo

“There’s been a crisis in the project this very week, actually, so we’ve just launched a fund-raising appeal today to raise £20, 000 to help them out there.”

Bristol Zoo is dynamic and at the forefront of global ecological, educational and conservation initiatives. Walton concludes,  “It is an incredible place to work and I know how fortunate I am. Whenever I tell people I work in a zoo their eyes light up and it’s magical because, you know, if you have a moment of stress or pressure – and my job is quite pressurised, having to bring in the income to keep the place running –  I can just go down to the gorilla house and chill out in there for ten minutes.

“I love to walk around the zoo when it’s quiet, maybe last thing at night or first thing in the morning and have a private look at the animals. That’s extraordinary. We have beautiful gardens here as well. And I think, most of all, it’s the people: we have an amazing staff here. To work with a team of people who are so passionate and committed just feels wonderful and amazing rather than working to line someone’s pockets. I just really like working for the charity and doing something worthwhile. It’s great.”

Images: Russell Howard credit Avalon Television, Colourful gorillas in London, The BBC, All other images and video Bristol Zoo Gardens

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