From the beginning, Paignton’s new zoo was about more than just displaying animals and plants. It was about providing a way for people to experience and learn from nature. In the early years, the zoo was one of only a handful in the UK and, uniquely, it was a zoo whose main purpose was education. This still holds true today, as in addition to being a leading visitor attraction, we’re also a conservation and education charity, with a focus on helping humans understand how to live in harmony with nature.
A tax dispute
Due to a dispute with the Tax Office concerning whether an entertainment tax should be applied to its income, Herbert Whitley closed his new zoo to the public in 1924, just one year after opening. Herbert believed, as we do now, that education was at the heart of his zoo and he would rather close the zoo than have it branded as entertainment.
This educational ethos continues to this day, with our Schools Go Free in ’23 campaign providing free entry for visiting school groups throughout our centenary year, allowing children of all ages to engage with nature and understand how they can join in with our work to help halt species decline.
Thanks to Whitley’s accumulated wealth, he was able to continue and improve the zoo collections privately. In 1927, Whitley finally conceded to pay the entertainment tax and reopened his zoo to the public, much to the delight of the people of Torbay. The zoo had developed significantly during the closure and upon reopening, was described by the press as the finest and largest private zoo in the world.
The Tropical House
In 1934, the zoo opened up a new attraction; the Tropical House. This was a huge draw for tourists and locals alike. Visitors to the house were charged extra for admission, which once again drew attention from the Tax Office.
The courts ruled that Herbert was to pay additional tax on this extra income, a fee he once again refused to pay. This decision left Herbert with no choice but to close the zoo gates for a second time, seemingly for good. Herbert had become so exasperated that he even considered reducing his collection to just his beloved pigeons. However a twist in fate occurred when World War II broke out.
From the beginning, the zoo was about more than just displaying animals and plants. It was about providing a way for people to experience and learn from nature. In the early years, the zoo was one of only a handful in the UK and, uniquely, it was a zoo whose main purpose was education. This still holds true today, as in addition to being a leading visitor attraction, we’re also a conservation and education charity. This means we’re in a unique position to teach people about the natural world, wildlife and conservation, with a focus on helping humans understand how to live in harmony with nature.
Whether it’s talks, signage and animal experiences that we use to engage our visitors and inspire them to get involved in our work, or our innovative workshops for schools, colleges and universities, learning and discovery is the very essence of who we are and what we do. One of the ways we have decided to celebrate our centenary year is by inviting in school groups free of charge. The Schools Go Free in ’23 campaign was conceived as a continuation of our original ethos, with education sitting squarely at the heart of our mission.
Wild Planet Trust also encourages and supports student research projects across its sites, and we are proud to have partnered with educational providers all around the UK, such as Plymouth (link) through which we can provide annual placement opportunities for students who wish to pursue careers in conservation biology. You can find more about our educational programmes on the Wild Planet Trust website.