Living in a zoo is at the top of most kid’s wish list when they’re growing up, but for lucky Aaron Whitnall his dream became a reality when his family brought a zoo.
32 years ago, Aaron’s granddad Peter Sampson stumbled across what was then the UK’s worst zoo and decided to buy it, changing his family’s lives forever.
Despite having absolutely no zoo keeping experience, Peter was determined to make a difference to the lives of the animals there and immediately started work to rejuvenate and re-launch the struggling wildlife park.
Peter explains, ‘I think the hardest thing was in the early days when we knew very little about animal welfare and animal care. It took a long while to convince people we were doing it for the right reasons rather than the wrong reasons.’
Now, thanks to the hard work of Peter and his family Paradise Wildlife Park is flourishing, so much so that the family have since set up a second site in Kent called the Big Cat Sanctuary, which is home to 17 breeds of big cat.
Peter’s daughter Lynn Whitnall has been helping at parks since the very beginning and has loved raising her three sons so close to the animals here.
She says, ‘I originally helped out just in the first year. I was actually working somewhere else in travel and tourism and came over just on days off and evenings just to help out with the animals and 32 years later I’m still here!’
‘Being able to raise the children at the side of the park has just been absolutely amazing. It’s been their back garden.’
Although all 3 of Lynn’s sons are involved in the park, it is her eldest son Aaron who has forged the strongest bond with the animals.
Fondly recalling how Aaron even once helped to raise a lion cub in their home, she says, ‘we actually looked after Zara our lion cub at home for about 4 or 5 months. Having a lion cub in the house with children was lovely because obviously they helped nurture her and they were with her as she was growing up over those first few months. I think it was educational for both of them and great fun.’
‘Aaron did actually sleep with Zara for a couple of months. There were a couple of times when he was quite tired at school because through the night she wanted to play. We did actually get a call from the school to say was there a problem at home because Aaron had actually said in class he was sleeping with a lion cub and obviously they felt he wasn’t being quite truthful!’
But despite sharing his bed with a lion cub, Aaron admits he didn’t realise that his childhood was unusual until he was much older.
He explains, ‘Growing up on the zoo as a kid in primary school, it was normal life! I didn’t really know anything different. You don’t really think, ‘oh, I live in a zoo, that’s weird!’’
‘You don’t really appreciate it until you’re that bit older.’
‘Growing up has just been awesome. Luckiest guy alive.’
It’s clear that the zoo has brought the family closer together, and they couldn’t be prouder of everything they’ve managed to achieve.
Lynn says, ‘I think we’re most proud of the fact of when we first brought it, it was one of the worst zoos in the UK and with our family and the team that we have we’ve transformed it over the years into one of the best small zoos in the UK and possibly Europe which is wonderful.’
Keep up the amazing work guys!
Don’t forget to watch the video above to see what life in the zoo is really like!