The early years

Paignton Zoo Environmental Park developed from the private menagerie of eccentric millionaire Herbert Whitley to become one of the country’s top zoos.

The Zoo opened to the public in 1923 - its remits of conservation, scientific research and education are rooted in these early years. Herbert strongly believed that the Zoo should be a place of learning, not just recreation. On his death in 1955, a Trust was formed that became the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Paignton Zoo was in at the beginning of the modern zoo movement. Philip Michelmore - Whitley’s friend and successor - was instrumental in founding the Zoo Federation (now the British & Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums), the body that represents top zoos in this country. Similar organisations formed at European and global levels, and this helped pave the way for co-operation between zoos around the world.

What’s in a name?

Over the years the Zoo’s name has changed a number of times. Originally known as Torbay Zoological Gardens, it became Primley Zoological Gardens and then Devon’s Zoo and Circus (during World War II) and later Paignton Zoological and Botanical Gardens (it was the first combined botanical and zoological gardens in the world). It was named Paignton Zoo Environmental Park in 1996, marking the start of a £6m redevelopment programme funded by the European Regional Development Fund and by the sale of land.

On screen

The Zoo has appeared on the nation’s TV screens a number of times. In 1998 the BBC TV series Zoo Keepers – one of the first fly-on-the-wall documentary series – put the Zoo and its staff in front of the British public. The Trust was the focus of another dedicated TV documentary series called Zoo Story in 2004, this time for ITV Westcountry.

In 2007 the BBC filmed the birth of Paignton Zoo’s first black rhino calf for TV. The birth was the first of its kind to be shown on the world wide web and made little Zuri a worldwide star!

The greener zoo

Paignton Zoo Environmental Park tries to live up to its name. We try to set an example to our visitors and test out ideas that can help the planet. These range from solar panels and composting to ethical trading and avoiding wherever possible the use of palm oil (plantations are destroying orang utan habitat in South East Asia).

Some of the more unusual ideas include biological pest control in off-show greenhouses, a reed bed water filtration system and biomass heating in Crocodile Swamp. The front entrance building has a living roof.

We have an Environmental Management System and our ISO14001 international accreditation for environmental management. In 2008 Paignton Zoo was named Best Sustainable Tourism Business and overall award for the Best Sustainable Business in Devon by the Devon Environmental Business Initiative (DEBI). The Zoo has also won awards from the Green Tourism Business Scheme.

The most significant initiative of recent years has been VertiCrop. VertiCrop was the world’s first public high-density vertical growing system. This working prototype has shown how this sort of technology could help solve the world’s food production problems. VertiCrop combines low food miles, high density production and the reduced use of resources like land and water - and it means we can produce fresh, tasty herbs and leaf vegetables for our animals right here in the Zoo!


Learning has always been important to the organisation. The Paignton Zoo Education Department was founded in 1961 – an early and pioneering move. In 1997 the Paignton Zoo Science Department was established. Now known as the Field Conservation and Research Department and working under the auspices of the Trust, this is one of the busiest zoo research departments in Europe.

The 21st century

In the 10 years after becoming an environmental park, Paignton Zoo was transformed, becoming a zoo for the 21st century. The Ape Centre, Education Centre, Avian Breeding Centre, Reptile Tropics, Animal Encounters Theatre, Veterinary Centre, Reptile Nursery and Monkey Heights were all opened and habitat themes were introduced across the Zoo grounds.

In 2003, the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust took over Newquay Zoo and opened Living Coasts – Torquay’s coastal zoo. More recently Crocodile Swamp (2008), VertiCrop (2009) and Amphibian Ark (2010) were all opened. Encouragingly, visitor numbers hit a record high of nearly 530,000. In recent years we have seen a succession of exciting births; in 2009, four rare Sumatran tiger cubs were born and in early 2012 we saw the birth of our first zebra in 10 years.

In 2012 Dr David Stradling, the Chairman of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, died after a long illness. In the same year, Paignton became the first zoo in the UK to see (and smell!) a giant Titan arum bloom.

2013 saw Paignton Zoo lead The Great Gorilla Project, which put life-sized painted gorilla models on the streets of Devon and which raised £30,000 for conservation.

In 2015 Paignton Zoo marked ten years of ISO14001 environmental accreditation.

New food outlets - Hangout Pizzeria and the Great Griller Burger Shack – were opened in 2016. The same year saw painted rhino figures raise £60,000 for rhino conservation in The Great Big Rhino Project.

2017 saw the first series of The Zoo on CBBC TV, a light-hearted mockumentary narrated by comic Hugh Dennis. Plans were revealed for Into Africa, a major remodelling of the Paignton Zoo savannah zone. Former Trustee Dr Michael Proctor died.

The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust became Wild Planet Trust in 2019. The new name was chosen to reflect the charity’s modern, inspiring and inclusive outlook.