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Your zoo: 90s nostalgia from a Gibbon Club member

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.

Tara Sanders is an active member on our dedicated Facebook memories group and a self-confessed ‘zoo geek’. Tara’s love for Paignton Zoo was evident in the impressively thorough school project she’d shared on the platform, so we were very excited when she accepted our invitation to come and in and tell us all about it.

Tara Sander School Project Contents
The school project covered a huge range of topics, including Paignton Zoo’s history

Changes through history

The school project was something Tara and her friend had decided on back in 1999, when they were in year 9. “We were given a theme of changes through local history,” she tells us. “My friends and I absolutely loved the zoo, so choosing that would mean we could come to the zoo quite a lot, which was brilliant.”

But it wasn’t just fun day trips to the zoo for Tara and her friend Jenny: “It also meant lots of hours down at the library researching, as well as reading Chimps, Champs and Elephants quite a few times.” She says she particularly enjoyed “learning about Herbert Whitley and how he started everything, and his enthusiasm for wildlife and wanting to bring that to the masses, which was why he wanted to start bringing animals to this area.”

The pair also chatted to zoo keepers to see what secrets they could spill, as well as quizzing family members about their own personal memories: “We would go through old photographs from when we were younger and identify all the visible changes. It was an interesting process.”

Young Tara poses by the old giraffe enclosure
A young Tara posing in front of the old giraffe enclosure

The Gibbon Club

“The zoo’s been a part of my life for a lot of years,” Tara tells us, having readily provided the photographic evidence to prove it. As a member of PAWZABS (Paignton and Westcountry Zoological and Botanical Society – later shortened to ‘PAWS’) in the late 90s and early 2000s, she was given exclusive access to a range of members-only activities and experiences.

Tara and friend feed giraffes at Paignton Zoo
The Gibbon Club would help with animal enrichment and feeding

“The Gibbon Club was something that was offered to youth members of PAWS. There were different activities throughout the year, like little conferences depending on your age range or having close encounters. My friends and I would come to a few of those activities.”

There were a variety of exciting activities for the club members to get involved in, Tara remembers. “We watched chicks hatching from their eggs… We were able to stroke the rhinos… We would feed the giraffes and the elephants in their enclosure as well.” She smiles, “Having Duchess and Gay actually take something from your hand was really amazing. And it wasn’t just feeding. We got to get close to the animals as well and learn all about the different conservation and breeding programmes at the zoo. It was just so brilliant.”

Tara Sanders feeding chick
Tara feeding a young chick as part of her Gibbon Club duties

Tara tells us that there is one particular animal from her Gibbon Club days that holds a special place in her heart: Devika.

Devika, the Asiatic lion cub, had been hand-reared by keepers in a separate enclosure after her parents had rejected her. “As part of the Gibbon Club, we were able to help with putting feed in her enrichment balls. Because she had been hand-reared, she was a lot more engaged with people, so when you came near her enclosure, she would always come up to you and look rather than hiding away. She was really playful!”

Devika asiatic lion cub at Paignton Zoo Tara Sanders
Tara’s favourite animal was Devika, the hand-reared lion cub

Bringing nature to life

We asked Tara why Paignton Zoo was so important for her. “I’ve always loved wildlife,” she says. “You can really get close to nature here. Growing up in Torquay, Paignton was obviously very close and it was just a great way to learn more about that in an interesting and exciting way rather than just reading about it in a book.”

“I did love reading, but if you can actually go and see a giraffe while you’re also reading a book about giraffes, it just brings everything to life. It’s not just the wildlife that’s in the enclosures, it’s the natural landscape as well. Seeing the robins, the blue tits, the bees… it’s just a really lovely place to come that’s quite calming and it’s just a great place to learn about nature.”

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.