Paignton Zoo

Coordinates: 50°25′44″N 3°35′4″W / 50.42889°N 3.58444°W / 50.42889; -3.58444
Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Paignton Zoo
50°25′44″N 3°35′4″W / 50.42889°N 3.58444°W / 50.42889; -3.58444
Date opened1923
LocationPaignton, Devon, England
Land area80 acres (32 ha)
No. of animalsOver 2,000
No. of speciesOver 250
Major exhibitsReptile Tropics, Crocodile Swamp, Ape Centre, Lemur Wood, Monkey Heights Edit this at Wikidata

Paignton Zoo is a zoo in Paignton, Devon, England. The zoo started as a private collection in the grounds of his home, Primley House, by avid animal collector and breeder, Herbert Whitley. It was opened to the public on a number of occasions, and closed twice due to disputes with the tax authorities. On Whitley's death, the zoo was signed over to a trust, to be run as a public attraction. The zoo has a collection of about 2,000 animals representing nearly 300 species, and it also cultivates about 1,600 different species of plant.

The zoo is owned by registered educational and scientific charity Wild Planet Trust, which also runs Newquay Zoo in Newquay, Cornwall. It employs 140 permanent staff, rising to over 200 in peak season.[1]


Private collection

Herbert Whitley was an avid collector and breeder of animals,[2] started after the gift of two canaries by his mother as a child,[3] and had inherited a family fortune made in brewing prior to the death of his father, MP Edward Whitley. He moved with three of his four siblings to Devon, and after studying agriculture at Cambridge University, returned an went in to business with his brother William. They bought agricultural land holdings, and set about breeding prime livestock.[4]

Herbert's home, with his mother and sister, at Primley House was the centre of the breeding operation. As well as the livestock, Herbert set about trying to breed many types of animal, and was particularly obsessive about producing blue animals. He filled the large amount of outbuildings of the estate with animals of all types. He acquired an increasing number of exotics, including a chimpanzee called Bonny Mary, who appeared in the press as "the cleverest chimp in England".[5]

First public opening and closure

In July 1923, Herbert decided to open his collection to the public as "Primley Zoological Gardens". Employees of the Torquay Tramway Company were amongst the first to visit the site prior to its official opening.[6]

At opening, the admission was one shilling for adults and sixpence for children, with exhibits including bears, monkeys, zebra, baboons, hyena, and many varieties of bird.[7]

In the month of opening, the park was visited by an officer of the Inland Revenue, who informed Herbert that he should be charging an 'amusement tax' on ticket sales. Whitley declined to do so, stating that his park was educational rather than entertainment. He was then summonsed to appear at court in Paignton, which happened on 21 March 1924, where the magistrates found in favour of the Inland Revenue.[8]

Whitley immediately closed the park to the public, posting notices on the entrances, explaining the dispute and naming the justices involved in the case.[8]


Whitley continued to publicly feud with the revenue and magistrates, including raising a petition, and engaging in publicity denouncing the taxing. This led to replies in local press from the magistrates.[9] Herbert had some history of clashing with authority, having fought the Paignton Urban District over his refusal to allow surveyors to access his land with a view to placing sewage and sanitation works, which he also lost at court and at appeal.[10]

Second opening and closure

In 1927, Herbert agreed to reopen the zoo, and pay the contentious entertainment tax.[11]

In 1934, the zoo opened a new "Tropical House", for which visitors had to pay an extra fee, and this once again attracted the attention of the Inland Revenue, who insisted that the tax be additionally paid on that fee. Whitley once again refused, and once again lost at court, closing the zoo for a second time in protest.[11]

Whilst back as a private zoo, a leopard escaped its enclosure after mauling its keeper, John Hawkins, in January 1939.[12] The animal stayed on zoo grounds,[13] and repeated attempts were made to lure it into a cage trap with meat.[14] The leopard did not take the bait, and went on the move, killing a flock of rare St Kilda sheep. The risk of the animal moving from the grounds led to beaters being brought in to flush the animal, which was shot dead at close range by Major SA Yorke of the 152nd Devon Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery using his service rifle.[15][16]

Chessington evacuation

Herbert continued to collect and breed, along with his brother William. Around the outbreak of

Chessington Zoo needed to evacuate their animals, Herbert agreed to house them at Primley, and so ended up with a large collection.[17] The relocation included not only animals, such as lions and tigers,[7] but also the miniature railway (which ran until 2022)[18] and entire circus including the clowns and acrobats.[17]

Whilst Herbert remained involved, Chessington's Reginald Goddard ran much of the operations, operating the site as Devon's Zoo and Circus with a focus on entertainment and profit which had never been part of Whitley's style.[19] The zoo was run as "Devon's Zoo and Circus" and Goddard brought in a wide range of attractions from play areas to bands.[19]

After the war in 1946 Chessington reopened, and most of the Chessington animals returned to their Surrey home, but the circus remained until 1953, and the miniature railway lasted until 2022.[19]

Following the departure of Goddard, Whitley formed a new partnership with local accountant Norman Dixon, and the zoo became Paignton Zoo and Botanical Gardens.[7]

Death of Whitley and trust

When Herbert Whitley died in 1955, the Herbert Whitley Trust,[20][21] later the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT) was set up to continue his work, and this was again renamed in 2019 as the Wild Planet Trust. The trust also owns and operates Newquay Zoo and previously also ran Living Coasts on Torquay seafront. His estates also included the site of several local nature reserves in Devon, including Slapton Ley, now also owned by the trust.

Growth as a trust

The zoo continued to grow as a trust, and in 1961 WE Francis was appointed as General Manager, along with the zoo's first full time education officer, who was appointed in conjunction with Devon County Council education committee.[7]

Attendances continued to grow, with 346k visitors in 1962 and 353k in 1963.[7]

The trust continued to add more exotic animals, adding to the elephants that Whitley has brought to the zoo in 1949. This included giraffes in 1968, and baboons in 1976. The trust also built visitor facilities such as the main restaurant.[7]

The first orangutans arrived in 1993 from London Zoo.[7]

In 1995, the zoo received £2.9 million from the European Regional Development Fund, allowing major facilities upgrades which lasted until 2001.[7] This included the building of the Marie Le Fevre ape centre, the new elephant and giraffe house, and the Reptile Tropics attraction.

21st century

In 2003, the trust set about a major expansion programme, purchasing Newquay Zoo and building the £7m Living Coasts marine aviary in Torquay.[7]

In the Great Gorilla Project during 2013, life-sized gorillas were placed across Devon for charity and £100,000 was raised[22]

The 2016 Great Big Rhino Project raised £123,000 for conservation[23]

Duchess, the zoo's only African Elephant, died[24]

In 2022, the last remnant of the Chessington arrivals left when the miniature railway closed[25]


The zoo has a large collection of around 2,000 animals across over 400 species as of 2011[26] (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) across many different, naturally-themed exhibits.[27]

List of animals
  • Animals at Paignton Zoo
  • KomodoLR-1-min.jpg
  • Tatau on the ropes.jpg
  • BlackRhinoSitaLR-7.jpg
  • EmberLR-11.jpg
  • Sumatran tiger at Paignton Zoo.jpg
  • Red-ruffed lemur.jpg


Paignton Zoo is a member of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA),[28] the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) - holding the vice-chair position until 2025[29] - and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA).[30] Its gardens are members of PlantNetwork,[31] Plant Heritage,[32] the Arboricultural Association,[33] and Botanic Gardens Conservation International. It works with partner zoos and gardens in these organisations on the management of captive breeding and plant conservation programmes for endangered species.

Education and research

The zoo has a large education team which teaches approximately 50,000 students each year from under-5s to post-16s, as well as adult community groups.[7]

The Education Department was founded in 1961 and the Paignton Zoo Science Department was established in 1997, during the redevelopment programme.[34] Now renamed the Field Conservation and Research Department, it has grown to become a well-known zoo science departments in Europe,[34] with staff engaged in a programme of projects within the zoo, at Wild Planet Trust's other sites in the UK, and at various sites overseas. Projects are carried out at 'A' level, undergraduate and post graduate level.[35][36][37]

Botanical gardens

Garden themes and plant collections include a broad collection of temperate hardy trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants arranged by habitat type. The indoor growing areas allow the zoo to grow plants from all over the world, ranging from small critically endangered cactus in the desert house, through to the massive Titan arum, giant bamboo and giant water lilies located in the tropical houses.[citation needed]


Paignton Zoo was, based on visitor feedback, named by

TripAdvisor as the third best zoo in the UK (behind Chester and Colchester) and ninth best zoo in Europe in 2014.[38][39]

Television appearances

The zoo has been the setting for a number of television programmes.

In 1998, the BBC One documentary series Zoo Keepers followed the zoo over two series.[40][41]

ITV Westcountry filmed the documentary Zoo Story at Paignton Zoo, which was broadcast in 2004 and narrated by Ruth Langsford.[42] A book based on the series was also published in 2005, called "Zoo Story: Paignton Zoo and the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust".[7]

In 2017, children's television channel

CBBC, created The Zoo, episodic comedy show filmed at Paignton Zoo, England, from the point of view of animals, would air in the summer of the same year.[43]


  1. ^ "Facts and Figures". Paignton Zoo. Retrieved 12 April 2023.
  2. ^ "Our Story: From one man's private collection to a world renowned zoo and botanical garden". Paignton Zoo.
  3. ^ "Our history". Wild Planet Trust.
  4. ISSN 2515-9437
  5. ^ "Cleverest monkey". Sunday Mirror. 12 August 1923.
  6. ^ "The Torbay Zoo". Torquay Times. 6 July 1923.
  7. ^ – via Google Book.
  8. ^ a b Bowen, Fred E (1930). Official Guide to the Primley Zoological Gardens.
  9. ^ "The Closing of Paignton Zoo - Magistrate's Reply". Torbay Express. 25 April 1924.
  10. ^ "Justices' Decision Upheld on appeal". The Devon and Exeter Gazette. 28 April 1923.
  11. ^ a b "Our Story: The early years – what are zoos for?". Paignton Zoo.
  12. ^ "Escapoed Leopard Lies Low Near Giant Moustrap". Birmingham Daily Gazette. 12 January 1939.
  13. ^ "Leopard is Located Near Zoo". Sheffield Evening Telegraph. 11 January 1939.
  14. ^ "Giant Trap for Leopard: But He Still Lies Low". Leeds Mercury. 12 January 1939.
  15. ^ "Leopard Hunt ends". Belfast News. 13 January 1939.
  16. ^ "Starcross Marksman Shoots Primley Leopard from 7ft Range". Torquay Times. 13 January 1939.
  17. ^ a b "Our Story: The war years". Paignton Zoo.
  18. ^ Henderson, Guy (21 January 2022). "Paignton Zoo's much-loved miniature Jungle Express train has gone for good". Devon Live. Reach. Retrieved 22 January 2022.
  19. ^ a b c "World War Zoo: From Chessington to Devon's Zoo and Circus". Paignton Zoo.
  20. ^ "TV camera at Audley Park". Torquay Times. 30 March 1962.
  21. ^ "By Direction of the Herbert Whitley Trust". Torquay Times. 13 April 1956.
  22. ^ "About the Great Gorillas, Torbay community conservation project". Retrieved 2 July 2018.
  23. ^ "Great Big Rhino Project - The Story of Dino Rhino | Student Placement, Torquay, Exeter, South Devon | The Training Partnership Limited". Retrieved 2 July 2018.
  24. ^ Cooper, Joel (14 July 2019). "Paignton Zoo break heartbreaking news as Duchess the African Elephant dies". Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  25. Heritage Railway
    . No. 290. 18 February 2022. p. 33.
  26. ^ "Paignton Zoo: Zoo details". About Zoos. 2011.
  27. ^ "A-Z of Animals - Paignton Zoo".
  28. ^ "Wild Planet Trust-Paignton Zoo". British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Retrieved 12 April 2023.
  29. ^ "EAZA Organisational Structure". European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. Retrieved 12 April 2023.
  30. ^ "WAZA Members". World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Retrieved 12 April 2023.
  31. ^ "Paignton Zoological & Botanical Gardens". PlantNetwork. 1 November 1999. Retrieved 12 April 2023.
  32. ^ "Buddleja spp". Plant Heritage.
  33. ^ "Paignton Botanical Gardens". Arboricultural Association.
  34. ^ a b "Paignton Zoo: Our History". Retrieved 2 July 2018.
  35. ^ "Postgraduate • Wild Planet Trust". Wild Planet Trust. Retrieved 15 August 2019.
  36. ^ "Undergraduate • Wild Planet Trust". Wild Planet Trust. Retrieved 15 August 2019.
  37. ^ "Primary • Wild Planet Trust". Wild Planet Trust. Retrieved 15 August 2019.
  38. ^ Clark, Daniel (5 August 2014). "Paignton Zoo named third best in UK". Herald Express. Local World. Retrieved 6 May 2015.[permanent dead link]
  39. ^ Hughes, Nancy. "Top 10 zoos in Europe, according to TripAdvisor". The Independent. Archived from the original on 24 May 2022. Retrieved 5 August 2014.
  40. ^ "The Zoo Keepers". BBC.
  41. ^ "The Zoo Keepers". WorldCat.
  42. ^ "Zoo Story (2004)". British Film Institute.
  43. ^ "CBBC and DHX Media announce new series The Zoo". Retrieved 17 August 2017.

External links