zoo horizontal strip
GloWild – our biggest ever festive event!
Ongoing updates and improvements

Ken Smith: The Unsung Hero of Paignton Zoo

Disclaimer: This blog discusses the capture of wild animals for display in zoological collections, which is a practice that we do not support today. We recognise this made up much of the work of early zoos, but as a forward-thinking conservation charity we are working to protect wild animals and their habitats in order to help halt species decline. You can read more about our conservation work here.

As Paignton Zoo celebrates its centenary and looks back on its past, it’s inevitable that much of the attention is focussed on its eccentric and innovative founder, Herbert Whitley. While Herbert’s influence on the early zoo is without question, it’s important not to forget the contributions of other key players. Among them is Ken Smith, a highly respected but often forgotten zoo professional who played a crucial role in the zoo’s growth.

A Man For All Zoos

Ken Smith (born July 20th, 1911 in Oxfordshire) was appointed as Paignton Zoo’s superintendent in 1952, shortly before Herbert Whitley’s death in 1955. He brought with him a wealth of animal experience, having previously worked at several other UK zoos, notably Whipsnade in Bedfordshire, and the now-closed zoos in Calderpark, Glasgow and Belle Vue in Manchester.

ken smith holding baby monkeys

He was on excellent terms with Herbert Whitley and was one of only a handful of people that Herbert would willingly agree to meet. As Herbert’s health started to fail, Ken’s regular updates kept him abreast of news concerning arrivals, hatchings and departures from his still-growing zoo. In addition to their shared interests in zoos and animal husbandry, this relationship no doubt also stemmed from Ken’s overseas experience collecting animals for display in UK zoos, of which Paignton was one of the largest recipients.

Ken Smith with a large procurement of capture animals bound for Paignton Zoo, 1956.

Ken Smith with a large procurement of animals collected for Paignton Zoo, 1956

Collecting Expeditions

Today, of course, almost all of the animals we look after in our zoos are born in captivity and are part of coordinated breeding programs. However, in the 50s and 60s, most animals were captured in the wild and transported to zoos for public display. The BBC documentary series ‘Zoo Quest’ featured a young David Attenborough accompanying staff from London Zoo on these expeditions and is still available to view on the BBC archives, providing context behind what was an accepted practice at the time.

Ken Smith (left) with artist Robert Lowes (centre) and naturalist Gerald Durrell (right) holding a captured 8' boa in British Guiana, 1950.

Ken Smith (left) with artist Robert Lowes (centre) and naturalist Gerald Durrell (right) holding a captured 8′ boa in British Guiana, 1950

Ken Smith’s companion for some of these collecting trips was the then-unknown author and naturalist, Gerald Durrell. Smith and Durrell visited what was then British Cameroon and British Guiana, with Ken also visiting Sierra Leone independently. Some of Paignton’s most popular residents arrived as a result of these expeditions, with Charlie the chimp being a particular favourite.

Branching Out

In 1952, Paignton’s Superintendent and former circus strongman Alexander Zass retired, and Ken was invited to take up the helm. His time at Paignton Zoo saw Ken marry keeper Trudy Hills, as well as establish a ‘branch zoo’ on the seafront at Exmouth, which operated during the summer season. Ken also took an active role in local conservation issues, rescuing oiled seabirds from pollution events in Torbay.

Ken’s tenure saw the zoo continue to grow, with countless new arrivals among its animal residents, notably a large eland named Dannyboy, Percy the pygmy hippo and a giant anteater called Sarah Huggersack*, the latter of which had been acquired from one of Gerald Durrell’s expeditions.

Ken Smith feeding Percy the pygmy hippopotamus at Paignton Zoo.

Ken Smith feeding Percy the pygmy hippopotamus at Paignton Zoo

Ken Smith with eland 'Dannyboy' at Paignton Zoo.

Ken Smith with Dannyboy the eland at Paignton Zoo

gerald durrell with baby sarah 1

Gerald Durrell with the young Sarah Huggersack on their voyage back to England, 1954

Sarah Trudy edited

Ken’s wife, zookeeper Trudy Smith, looked after Sarah at Paignton Zoo

*Sarah Huggersack's unusual surname came from the fact that baby anteaters cling onto their mothers, and while being reared, Sarah would hang on to her human foster parents. If they were busy, Sarah would often "hug a sack" for company!

A Zoo Empire

It would ultimately be Ken’s friendship with Gerald Durrell that drew him away from Paignton. In the late 1950s, Durrell was in the process of establishing a zoo of his own. Jersey Zoo, owned by Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, initially consisted of animals that he had collected during his expeditions. In 1958, Ken Smith was offered the chance to become the zoo’s first Superintendent. Ken was largely responsible for getting the fledgling zoo up and running when it opened in 1959, helping it quickly gain a reputation for its innovative and spacious animal enclosures.

ken smith and wife trudy arrive at jersey zoo

Ken and Trudy arrive in Jersey Zoo, ready for its grand opening in Easter 1959

Three years later, Ken and his family would return to the South West and take over the lease for Exmouth Zoo, which Paignton had decided to sell. Over the next few years, Ken’s ‘zoo empire’ would expand to encompass four animal collections in the region. In 1963, he opened Poole Park Zoo in Dorset, followed by Teignmouth Children’s Zoo and then Newquay Children’s Zoo in 1967. Of these four zoos, only one is still open, although it’s now known as Shaldon Wildlife Trust, one of the UK’s finest small zoos and well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Newquay Children’s Zoo was located in Trenance Garden, across the road from our sister zoo in Newquay and closed shortly after the ‘new’ Newquay Zoo opened in 1969.

Lasting Legacy

Despite Ken Smith’s immense contributions to the field of zoology, his passing on December 21, 1979 marked the end of an era. His indoor zoo in Exmouth closed shortly after his death and was later made into an amusement arcade, becoming unrecognisable today as a former zoo. Ken’s impact on Paignton Zoo, especially during the challenging years following the death of Herbert Whitley, cannot be overstated. Regrettably, his role in the histories of some of the UK’s most significant zoo collections often goes unnoticed, but his legacy lives on through the animals he loved and the zoos he helped establish.

“Explore. Dream. Discover. Those words could have been Ken Smith’s personal mantra. He did all that, and more.”

Russell Tofts (2012)

ken smith with monkey covering his mouth

To learn more about the life and work Of Ken Smith, we recommend reading “Animals in the Blood: The Ken Smith Story: A Biography of Gerald Durrell’s Right-hand Man” by Russell Tofts.

This blog was posted to document the history of Paignton Zoo as we celebrate our centenary year. Click here to discover more about our history and our plans for 2023.