There can be few parts of Britain - or indeed Europe - to match the beauty of the north Cornish coas, but the holiday town of Newquay is not one of its lovelier features. And for a long time after its opening in 1969 Newquay Zoo was not one of the lovelier animal collections in the West of England. Opened by the local Council as one of a number of amenities in Trenance Park - there are tennic courst, a swimming pool, a putting green and various other attractions too - the zoo was allowed to wallow along for the first quarted century of its existence. At one stage it was attracting 150,000 visitors a year, but those figures soon shrank, and with them shrank the money available for the zoo's development. The collection was unremarkable, and whilst one or two half decent enclosures were constructed, there was not a great deal of imagination, inspitration, or ambition about the place. Largely cut off from other British zoos, Newquay's profile was low, and whilst the council did their best, the zoo's quality was not a great deal higher. If, as Britain entered the 1990s, the place had been closed down, there would have been barely a whisper of protest.
Instead, in 1993, the council sold what was then known as 'Animal World' to a Welshman named Michael Thomas who was able to bring in a small amount of money - and more crucially - both imagination and inspiration. Newquat Zoo is now a delight - a truly excellent small zoo, bursting with good ideas, excellent displays, and that special ambience which characterises the very best zoos up and down the country. New enclosures have been added, but more importantly much has been made of the structures which were in place at the time of the take-over, renovating, re-thinking, and re-utilising them so that, if some are still not perfect, they are at least a great deal better than they were.
The animal collection at Newquay Zoo was not especially impressive during the latter years of council control. There were a pair of lions and a pair of pumas. A single female Himalayan black bear remained in a pit which had once housed seven. Some monkeys, a couple of fruit bats, a camel, and a large number of domestic animals made up the rest of the mammal population - giveor take a raccoon or two. The bird collection, some of it maintained in a tropical house which the council had built in 1990 - was of a similar calibre. Each year around 60,000 visitors were coming to the place. Few of them would have been particularly thrilled by what they saw.
Today Newquay Zoo has been reborn. Its visitor numbers have more than doubled to beyond 130,000 per year- and its animal collection has improved immeasurably. The housing for that collection is first class. More than that, the zoo has a sense of purpose; itis showing that even small zoos can do an excellent job of educating, conserving, and more crucially - of inspiring - by showing groups of animals in beautiful surroundings.
If any one exhibit signals the changes which have takenplace at Newquay it is the erstwhile bear pit. The last bear to inhabit it died in 1994, presenting the zoo with an opportunity to develop the structure for a new species : Sulawesi macaques. Several tonnes of top-soil were added to lessen the depth of the pit, and a couple of 8 metre tall trees were planted. Logas and ropes were brought in to offer climbing facilites; monkey proof plants which would attract insects were added to provide behavioural enrichment; a two metre waterfall was incorporated in the existing pond, specially designed to allow the gradual dispersal of small firm food items such as peanuts and raisins into the water. Into the wall of the pit waas cut a large window; the macaques would tus be able to view visitors eye-to-eye when sitting on the ground, instead of being confronted by the blank concrete of the perimeter wall. When the macaques arrived to take up residence - the males from London, the females from Jersey - they heartliy approved of their new home. A moribund exhibit from a bygone era had been transformed into an exciting enclosure for the future.
Another enclosure which has been developed from unpromising beginnings is rather grandly known as 'The African Plains'. In 1995 this paddock was redeveloped as a mixed species exhibit for Damara zebra, KafueFlats lechwe,porcupines, and a group of the ubiquitous meerkats. The meerkatsmight have been a problem. Their own agression could have hindered other species, or they might have been troden on by clumsy hooves. In fact they have done well, breeding freely (local seagulls being the primary danger to the young) and clearly relishing life in the expansive area allowed to them: seeing a family of ten or so animals, foraging for insects, exploring new smells, remaining vigilant at all times, and then suddenly - prompted perhaps by a passing gull - turning tail and shooting off en masse to another part of the enclosure, and they add a further dimension to what is an excellent display.
There is a great deal of natural water within the zoo, and it is used imaginatively. Black lemurs and golden lion tamarins have done particularly well on island enclosures, as have, more unusually, a group of capybaras. For an animal of such a semi-aquatic nature, the world's largest rodent is too frequently housed in nothing more than a bath-tub sized pool of water; but here at Newquay they are given (and use) a small lake. They look splendid on it. A further selection of South Americans - Brazillian tapirs, golden headed lion tamarins, and maras are maintained in another mixed enclosure.
Several enclosures left over from the council's days have been enhanced considerably under Newquay'snew regime. A run of monkeycages - seemingly built to withstand the blast of a nuclear explosion rather than the gentle exploration of a medium sized African primate - may not look particularly beautiful, but they are well furnished within and provide good homes for an interesting collection: sooty mangabeys (rarely seen in British zoos), diana monkeys, and a group of western black and white colobus. An adjacent nocturnal house features Rodrigues fruit bats and a pair of kinkajous.
While lions are still kept in their original enclosures, much has been made of the tropical house. The house contains a slice of jungle, viewed both from ground and first-floor level. The bird collection is good, if unremarkable; touracos, tropical doves, and so on. A selection of mammals (not always apparent) are there too: Indian fruit bats, Hoffman's sloths (good to see them in a roomy area), and acouchis. Every so often the house features a man made rainstorm courtesy of some crafty plumbing, and this only adds to the authenticity of it all: a simple house, but a very good one.
Elsewhere there is a large walk-through aviary (scarlet ibis and night herons), a quiate 'Japanese garden' (featuring otters and blue-eyed cockatoos) a breeding group of Humboldt'spenguins, and a children's farmyard (with a hedgehog hosptal).
The zoo is small - about three hectares - but seems bigger. The water helps, as do the many trees. But essentially Newquay Zoo seems bigger because there's agreat deal there, squeezed in between the swimming pool and the tennis courts. It may once have been one of the least attractive zoos in the west of England, but it is certainly now on its way to becoming one of the best.