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Bristol Zoo staff bid farewell to Clifton site

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

The zoo opened its doors in Clifton in 1836, making it the fifth oldest zoo in the world. Many of the original Victorian buildings still remain, including the gatehouse, the old giraffe house and the monkey temple.

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

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

The Wild Place Project site, just off junction 17 of the M5, has been owned by the Society since the 1960s, but for many years it was used only for breeding and quarantine purposes and was not accessible to visitors.

It was also used as a nursery for the Bristol Zoo Botanical Garden and to grow food for the animals.

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

Zoo staff said they were sad to leave the famous Bristol zoo, which is still within its Victorian walls, but were excited about the conservation opportunities offered by the more spacious facilities in Gloucestershire.

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

Dr Grainne McCabe, head of conservation and science, said the move would enable 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, like many zoos, and there’s a lot of history here,” she said.

She added: “The ability to walk around this small site and see so many different species is very reminiscent of zoos in the past and has something very special about it.”

When asked what she was most looking forward to about this big step, Dr McCabe said: “The best thing about Wild Place for me is that it will be much more like the feeling I get when I go out into the wilderness of the forest to see the animals.”

“So when you go to an exhibit that seems big but actually feels like their natural habitat, you might see the animals, but you might not. And that’s exactly how I feel when I work in the forest.”

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

Dr McCabe said some of the animals may struggle with the change, but added: “I think ultimately it will be a much, much more pleasant experience for them to live in a more natural enclosure and so moving to this new location is really the best thing for these animals.”

She added: “The exciting thing about moving to the new zoo is that many more of our local animals – initially over 80% and later 90% – will now be associated with our conservation work.”

Simon Garrett has worked at Bristol Zoo for 32 years, having taken a summer job there in 1989, and is now Head of Public Engagement.

He said the Bristol Zoological Society would be forced to sell the Clifton site to expand Wild Place, but wanted to leave a lasting legacy to the city.

“We’re not just going to sell to a developer and walk away with the money. Absolutely not,” he said.

“We are working hard to ensure that it becomes a part of our heritage that we can be proud of.”

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Bristol Zoo’s animals are moving to the Wild Place Project in south Gloucestershire, which is ten times the size of the current site (Jordan Jones/Bristol Zoo Gardens/PA).

According to the plans currently being considered, the botanical garden would remain on site and be open to the public free of charge every day.

Famous structures such as the Monkey Temple would be preserved, while the entrance buildings would be converted into the Clifton Conservation Hub, which would house the Avon Gorge and Downs Wildlife Project.

In addition, the children’s playground and the theater building will be kept open as community spaces for workshops and events.

The remainder of the site would be used for environmentally friendly housing, with energy efficiency being an integral part of the design.

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