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Your zoo: Five decades of memories from a mother & daughter

As we approach our official 100th birthday, we want to share with you some of the amazing stories we’ve heard from former staff, visitors and people who feel a close connection to Paignton Zoo.

Earlier this year, we interviewed Jasmine Osmond and her daughter Paula Simmons as part of our upcoming documentary on the history of Paignton Zoo.

Early starts

Jasmine was the catering manager at Paignton Zoo for over 20 years (1971-1993). However, she first started working here in 1957 to help her sister: “I used to come on busy days and bank holidays and help her with the coats and picnic baskets that we used to store for visitors for threepence for the day, and also bagging up peanuts for people to buy to feed to the animals for sixpence.”

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Jasmine pictured with a colleague shortly after she began working at Paignton Zoo (1958)

Jasmine recalls one of her earliest memories from the zoo: “We had a tannoy system for finding lost children and that sort of thing. Mr. Dixon, who was general manager, would sometimes play music over the tannoy.” She distinctly remembers him playing the music from Swan Lake: “It was a lovely sunny morning and the swans and the pelicans were on the lake and this lovely music was coming out over the lawns… it has always remained in my memory.”

Early mornings at the zoo are memories Jasmine holds close to her heart: “It was my favourite time of the day. First thing in the morning as I walk down the back drive to come to work. There wasn’t anybody else in the zoo, everything was sparkling clean, ready for the day. The leaves on the trees always seemed to be spring green, and when I passed the monk parakeets, they’d always be chattering away in their little cage. I used to love all the trees down the back drive. The lime trees that lined the path all the way down and the big copper beech tree at the back of the restaurant. And the front drive was just as lovely, with magnolia and all of the foliage in the trees. Those days were absolutely beautiful. That was my best time of the day.”

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A press photo of Jasmine walking a puma cub (1961)

Paula, Jasmine’s daughter, remembers practically growing up in Paignton Zoo before starting work here at a young age: “I was in the zoo for a lot of my early childhood, right the way through. I think my first sort of employment was when I was about 11. I would collect the peacock feathers from around the zoo in the early morning, as the peacocks would malt overnight, dropping their feathers. So I would scamper around, first thing in the morning, collecting what I could, and then my task in the afternoon would be to try and sell them to the general public.”

Paula and her mother joke about how flogging feathers and other odd jobs kept her out of trouble. “I mean I’ve just always been here,” she says, “This has always been part of me, growing up from a very young toddler and coming with mum, just joining in, being given little jobs, doing this, doing that.”

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Paula standing in front of the tree she remembers climbing as a child (c.1993)

Unforgettable faces

Growing up in Paignton Zoo may sound exciting, but for Paula, it was all she had ever known: “I was always out running around the zoo, looking at all the animals, making friends with all the animals… I used to just go round to them all. I used to like all of the animals, but I was very fond of Petra the Przewalski’s horse. He was sort of halfway up the back drive so I used to pass him on my way to the tea gardens. He’d got to know me and I’d go down and speak to him, stroke his nose and things like that. Members of the public weren’t able to do that sort of thing.”

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Petra the Przewalski horse was a Paignton Zoo icon in the 70s and 80s

When asked what specific animals Jasmine remembers, she doesn’t hesitate: “Jasper the white rhinoceros,” she says. “He had a very nasty habit of turning his back on people and projecting his urine! And there was a plaque outside his enclosure with a poem on it written by Mr. Philip Michelmore warning people not to stand too close to the barriers.”

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Many staff joked that by the time visitors would have read the entire poem, the damage might have already been done

We also asked Jasmine and Paula if there were any significant visitors they remember. “The most famous person that I can remember, of course is Duke of Edinburgh,” Jasmine tells us, “and that was a very, very special day.”

Paula recalls a there was a visitors book that they wanted him to sign: “Just the excitement of him coming… I can remember going out and buying a little potted plant to put on the table beside the visitors book.”

“There was no sort of glamour attached,” Jasmine says, “but we made everywhere was absolutely, spotlessly clean that day.”

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Jasmine and her colleagues meeting the Duke of Edinburgh during his visit in 1978

A special place

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Paula and her husband chose Paignton Zoo as their wedding venue.

We concluded our interview by asking the two what makes Paignton Zoo so special.

“Paignton Zoo, I think, is so important to the people of Paignton”, says Jasmine. “Everybody in Paignton came to visit the zoo in their childhood. I came with my children when they were at school, and now I come here with my grandchildren. It’s a part of so many people’s memories and everybody’s got a story to tell. Either you’ve worked here, you’ve visited here, you’ve had family or you knew somebody who worked here or something. Everybody in Paignton seems to have some sort of connection with the Zoo.”

Paula adds, “I grew up here. I mean, I’m told I first came here when I was a week old. My earliest memories are here. It was the people here that were my zoo family. It’s always been in my life. To me, Paignton Zoo means everything.”

We’re celebrating our centenary year. To discover more about Paignton Zoo’s 100 year history and our plans for the year, click here.

GloWild at Paignton Zoo

17th November 2023 – 2nd January 2024

We will be ending our centenary year in style with our biggest ever festive event!

Join us after dark for an immersive light experience featuring a variety of beautiful, interactive light installations, entertainers and a silent disco.