Twycross Zoo already enjoys a worldwide reputation for its specialist care of primates. Now, the registered charity has unveiled the blueprints of an ambitious 20-year Master Plan. This will transform the attraction in rural Leicestershire into one of the most impressive in the UK.
The £55 million capital investment programme aims to turn Twycross Zoo into a landmark tourist venue providing an immersive, entertaining and engaging visitor experience as well as consolidating its status as an internationally respected hub of animal conservation, research and education.
Blooloop spoke with Dr. Sharon Redrobe, CEO of Twycross Zoo, a Vet Specialist in Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, who has worked exclusively with exotic species for over 20 years. Redrobe is also Veterinary Advisor for the European-wide Great Ape breeding groups (GATAG) and Ape Action Africa, a Cameroon-based ape sanctuary and a Zoo Inspector in England and Wales.
I Read all the Books
Redrobe is a compelling advocate for the place of a zoo like Twycross in a conservation agenda.
Her combination of clear-sighted pragmatism and optimism certainly appear to make her ideally suited to lead the zoo through the next phase of its development.
As a child, her hero was renowned primatologist and anthropologist, Jane Goodall.
“I read all the books about chimpanzees in the wild and wanted to be her when I grew up… I went to university to be a vet, knowing I’d always wanted to go into exotics and saving the world – type stuff. Then reality hit…”
At university she was taught about domestic pets and farmyard animals but, at that time, nothing was taught about the care of exotic animals.
Directing and Blagging
“I threw myself into all the areas of student life. I was Student Union president and a director of musicals that we put on. It was London as well, so we got full copyright and were blagging stage equipment from the BBC and stuff … I think all my lecturers were aware that I wasn’t desperately interested in the main curriculum because I was always going to want to deal with wildlife.”
By sheer good fortune a job came up at the Edinburgh University Vet School just as she was graduating. At the time, the University had the contract for Edinburgh Zoo.
“I really enjoyed teaching the next generation of vet students and trying to teach them about exotics and wildlife and being involved with Edinburgh Zoo. I was Deputy Head of the department by the time I left, but glass ceiling and all that…”
Her next job was at Bristol Zoo.
“Bristol were advertising to start their own vet department. And, that was interesting because they were also developing a new site. So it was a great time to join them. They had just been renovating the Clifton site, moving that forward, and I was involved with master-planning from scratch. So it was great training for me. Then, to come to Twycross Zoo and apply those same principles – and turn Twycross into a UK, and then world, leader.”
Twycross and Future Potential
Describing the zoo in terms of its unrealised potential, Redrobe is clear-sighted. She knows that there is a fine balance between preserving its conservation principles and the need to increase footfall.
Twycross Zoo receives no government funding: the sole revenue stream is effectively the gate price. And, of course, it is competing for the leisure pound with the rest of the UK visitor attractions industry.
“Our operating costs are going to keep going up and up but we can’t suddenly start charging people twice as much”
“People may want to go to a theme park or go ten-pin bowling or to the cinema when it’s raining – the weather is always a challenge for outdoor attractions. And, essentially our operating costs are going to keep going up and up because animal welfare is going to keep moving forward – and I fully applaud that.
“It means we’re going to have to keep giving the animals more and more room; more and more naturalistic enclosures, which is going to cost more and more money – almost literally just put a zero on. And, we can’t suddenly start charging people twice as much. So, that’s the modern zoo challenge.”
A Chimpanzee Fixation
Nevertheless, she is enthusiastic about the Twycross Zoo of the immediate future.
“I think the potential at Twycross is enormous”
Twycross Zoo occupies just 35 acres of its 88 acre site. It has a catchment area of 20 million people and, currently has just shy of half a million visitors a year. As Redrobe points out, there is “massive room for growth.”
“We’re not restricted to a small city site. We’ve got lots of land, we have good road networks and we’re next to Britain’s second city, Birmingham.”
Having suffered from chronic under-investment and lack of aspiration for years, Twycross Zoo is, Redrobe believes, a huge untapped potential: “…a fantastic animal collection, and the only place in the UK where all four great apes are represented.”
She adds: “And, of course, given that I started life with a chimpanzee fixation, it’s worked out perfectly.”
Twycross Zoo has one of the most diverse collections of monkeys and apes in Europe, “… though it does depend how you count. We’ve got one of the largest gibbon collections in Europe by species and number. We’re the only zoo in the UK and one of only four in the world to have all four types of great ape represented, so there are a number of USPs there, which is fantastic. The point is, it’s a hidden gem: it’s got all this stuff going for it – and so far, hardly anyone has heard of it, which I just see as a massive opportunity.”
She is confident the zoo can surmount the challenges of all charity zoos to become a profitable centre of excellence, and is clear about how to make that happen.
“The concept of the ‘guilt-free’ trip to the zoo is becoming more important”
“I think we can do it. What we need to do is turn people on to what we’re doing. The concept of the ‘guilt-free’ trip to the zoo is becoming more important now to people as they become more educated and more uncomfortable about the idea of animals in captivity. If we’re too worthy, it’s a boring day out. It’s a really interesting challenge.”
Marketing, Redrobe says, is something that needs to be acknowledged. As she points out, ‘to Disney’ has become a verb.
“Everyone talks about ‘Disneyfication’ of the area and I think that’s no bad thing as a means to an end. We are not going to go down the route of using the animals. We’re not going to slide backwards into media exploitation of them. But, public expectation has moved forward and we have to follow that because that’s our main revenue stream.”
She illustrates this by adding: “This year we’ve brought giraffes back to the collection.”
Charismatic Animals at Twycross
The Giraffe Savannah enclosure was one of the first items of the Master-Plan to be completed.
As part of international breeding programmes the giraffes tick all the requisite conservationist boxes, but Redrobe frankly admits that the decision to showcase them at Twycross is driven by sheer financial pragmatism: they are charismatic animals and a huge draw for the public.
“We can build for giraffes fairly quickly and relatively cheaply. It will drive our visitor numbers, so it will drive our pounds and pence.”
Keeping the great apes in the most spacious and optimal naturalistic accommodation will be costly. Redrobe explains: “I can’t do that quickly and it takes millions, not hundreds of thousands. So we’ve brought giraffes in because they’re popular, and they’re still within our sensibility of a captive breeding programme, but they will drive the business forward. And, then, we’re building a wet splash playground for kids [the largest children’s water-play area in Leicestershire], but that’s for a fraction of the price a chimp facility would cost.
Not becoming a Theme Park
“But again, it will bring people in and it will keep them happy. They will give us more money. And then, in the next couple of years, we can get together the millions we need to build a fantastic chimpanzee habitat. So that’s the business model, in essence, that we’re pursuing. I want us to keep to that. We don’t have to sell out and become, as I would say, a theme park. We’re a conservation zoo, and we’ll never make billions. But we need to start making millions because animal welfare has gone forwards. It now costs millions to build habitats for these monkeys and apes, not just the tens of thousands we made over Easter.”
She adds, “I’m in my second year here now, and my absolutely first priority here was getting a strategy for Twycross Zoo, getting funding, getting us back on our feet and having a long-term vision and Master Plan. We’ve done that: we’ve just launched our 20-year plan; we’ve changed banks and got funding to underwrite four million pounds of investment this year – that was driving us, and was absolutely a priority for Twycross Zoo.”
The whole 88 acres has been master-planned with Weedon Architects. The initial focus has been on the 35 acres of existing zoo that has, in Redrobe’s words, “fallen behind the times”.
“We have to be very careful about turning the tap on marketing-wise and growing our visitor numbers and not meeting customer expectations”
Gibbons a USP at Twycross
She cites their gibbons as an example. Until now, the zoo has failed to capitalise on the fact that they have one of the largest collections of gibbons in Europe. This is a unique selling point for Twycross Zoo.
“They weren’t in European-leading accommodation. But, by this summer it will be the biggest investment for gibbons alone, and it will be fantastic.”
The initial phase of the zoo’s transformation is well under way. Last year, £800, 000 worth of improvements were completed – extensions to the meerkat enclosure; a lemur walk-through; a new toilet block. This year, new paths are being put in to replace the gravel ones that are a challenge, especially for wheelchairs and pushchairs; the giraffes have accounted for half a million pounds – and £1.5 million has been spent on The Gibbon Forest: a four-moated island complex for the gibbons.
Animals Getting Ten Times the Room
“There will be a massive step-change for Twycross Zoo as well. At the moment, a lot of the animal areas are traditional-looking. It will be a massive step-change for us to get them out of what appears to be cages and behind glass and onto moated islands. The animals are getting about ten times as much room. Their entire habitat at the moment will be swallowed up in this area of redevelopment which is about a fifth of the footprint of the entire zoo: fantastic.”
The next stage will be to do the same for the chimpanzees. Interestingly, Twycross Zoo was founded with pet chimpanzees that were used in the Brooke Bond P.G. Tips adverts.
“We’ve spent the last few years re-wilding them and getting them into larger and larger groups. So at the moment we have the biggest chimp group together that Twycross has ever seen. We have 13 together, but we have 22 chimps on site. We have three chimp areas at the moment, but we need one big one. So the next phase of development will be a large moated island complex to get our chimpanzees all together.”
She enthuses about the project, with a working title of Chimpanzee Eden:
The Importance of STEM
“We’re working with major universities, mainly Birmingham, to study our closest relative. The only other place in Europe where scientists can study all four apes in the same place is in Germany. In 2001 Leipzig Zoo built a massive 4-ape complex with the Max Planck Institute and it’s a win-win. You have a fantastic naturalistic enclosure which is much better for the animals. The visiting public love it because they can perceive that it’s much better for the animals. Finally, because it is naturalistic, and massive, the scientists can observe as if it’s the wild.
“I have a science background, and am therefore very keen on the STEM agenda. This is about bringing forward the next generation of scientists and conservationists. Here we can bring all that together into one thing. We’re going to take the best parts of the Leipzig complex, and the best parts of the Budongo Trail at Edinburgh (which is the latest chimpanzee habitat to be built in Europe) – and we will – hopefully – be looking at a 2016 or 17 completion.”
A Fantastic Resource at Twycross
She adds: “It will be a fantastic resource for learning about our closest cousins and working with top-rated scientists, but also for public engagement with science. The public will be able to see what’s going on. And, of course, the chimpanzees will benefit from some of the best chimpanzee habitat in Europe.”
Following on from that will be the construction of equally outstanding accommodation for all of the four great apes. Other aspects of the Master Plan address standard visitor attraction issues. These include re-designing the site and the route to increase the ‘dwell-time’ and optimising the visitor experience for all segments of the market.
“We have to become a higher-quality day out; an exciting day out; a more fun day out. The food has to be good; the retail offering has to be good; the toilets have to be nice. We have to start spending our money on that, as well as trying to have the best welfare standards for the animals.”
“We’re facing an extinction crisis in the wild, so I think now more than ever there are reasons for zoos to exist.”
A Charity Zoo
Redrobe acknowledges that the whole concept of keeping animals in captivity is fraught with controversy.
“We’re a charity zoo. The zoo world consists of different types. There are some highly commercial ones, and there are some where the zoo is hidden in the middle of a theme park. Twycross is very much a charity zoo. The aims of education, conservation and research are embodied in the Zoo Licencing Act in the UK and the European Zoo Directive, but I think we pay much more than lip service to that. I would only ever work at a charity zoo.”
She adds: “We are part of EEPs [endangered species breeding programmes]; and part of international breeding frameworks, and I’m passionate about that. The animals that we look after here aren’t Twycross Zoo’s: they’re part of international breeding programmes frameworks to keep some of these species viable within captivity, and therefore on the planet.”
As a trustee for Ape Action Africa, Redrobe travels to Cameroon once or twice a year. Chimpanzees in the wild face enormous pressures. Not just from the ebola outbreak but also from poaching. This is driven by deforestation, which is in turn driven by Western consumerism.
“Excersise your Consumerist Power”
Turning that tide will be a gargantuan task. But Redrobe points out that zoos are uniquely placed to educate people about conservation.
“ If we’ve got half a million people coming through our gates every year, then that’s half a million people to whom we can say, exercise your consumerist power in buying sustainable palm oil and recycling your mobile phone so it’s not dug out of the rainforest. It’s a really interesting time to be involved in conservation: I certainly align myself with the conservationists, running a zoo.”
She says: “My challenge to myself is to have Twycross Zoo as a shining example of the fact that it is possible to run a conservation-driven charity zoo, stay solvent and turn people on to conservation and making a difference without selling one’s soul and using the animals for commercial gain.”
Ape images courtesy Lucy Ray. Siamang courtesy Nigel Palmer. Penguins, leopard conservation and giraffe image courtesy Twycross Zoo. Sharon Redrobe image courtesy Angel Eye Media.