Why we bought a zoo

RELEASING a herd of giraffes into a South African nature reserve, was a moment the owners of Colchester Zoo will treasure forever.

RELEASING a herd of giraffes into a South African nature reserve, was a moment the owners of Colchester Zoo will treasure forever. LISA WOOLLARD asks the couple about the early days of their exciting career, and where the journey has taken them.

IT was back in 1983, at a time when many of the British public were protesting at the way zoos were being run, that Dominique and Angela Tropeano bought Colchester Zoo.

Their decision was made against the advice of their accountant, who was concerned about the Zoo Licensing Act due to be introduced later that year.

Angela said: “It seemed like a challenge, something we wouldn't get bored of.”

However, the decision was not a completely random choice - the 63-year-old's grandfather and uncle already ran zoos in the country. Angela, originally from Southport, Lancashire, said: “My grandfather had a zoo in the north west of the country and my uncle was the one who started Colchester Zoo in 1963.”

Dominique, 60, had a background in the leisure industry and despite many of his wife's family being in the same career, the couple admitted they still had a lot of learning to do about the trade.

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“There was a large anti-zoo feeling and we had many protestors who were trying to close the zoo down.

“I don't think we were aware of how deep that feeling ran in society, and we came into the industry with a certain amount of innocence,” said Angela.

“In those days the zoo wasn't particularly well run,” Dominique added. “There were just eight full-time keepers, one part-time office worker, a gardener and maintenance person.

“It was a time when people were saying they wouldn't come to the zoo. The previous owners were old and ill health had lead to the zoo being run down. Today we have 270 members of staff in total and 60 of those are keepers.

“There were not many animals and the way they were kept was nothing like it is today but those years in the 80s had a lot to do with the change in the way zoos were run.”

The couple spent the early days refurbishing the enclosures, laying down better tracks and installing better facilities. Dominique said: “There was only one toilet block when we took on the zoo and it was very primitive. People expected a lot more from their day out and so this was the side of things we tackled first. We started changing the animal collection later on.”

The first animals to be introduced to the zoo after the Tropeanos took over ownership were paddock animals. This was because they were easy to look after and since the couple were struggling to raise funding for everything they wanted to carry out it was an easy solution to start developing the location.

“Things took a nasty turn within the first year of running the zoo,” explained Dominique, “when one of the elephants just dropped down dead. She had been one of our main attractions and it resulted in us giving the other elephant away.”

The couple then got Tanya and Zola to replace the original elephants, and the two can still be seen at the zoo today. This was to signal the start of many new animals arriving including the latest addition of the Komodo dragons, something Dominique had wanted from the start.

Original animals include the two rhinos, the spider monkeys, orang-utan and condors.

Angela said: “As much as we love animals we had bought a business and you can't spend all day looking after the animals when you have another side to develop. When we first started I did help with the hand rearing side and enjoyed it very much but today it is totally left to our keepers who are all very well trained.”

Since the 80s the career choice has certainly kept the couple busy. They have extended the zoo once and have secured more land to continue further. They have also spent the last three years setting up a nature reserve in South Africa.

“I said when I was 55 I would retire but when I had my birthday it was pushed back to 60,” admitted Angela.

“Then when I turned 60 it was pushed back further and it constantly seems to be a thing in the distant future now.”

The idea of the nature reserve started when the couple visited South Africa in an attempt to bring back a new rhino three years ago.

She said: “While we were there we thought it would be nice to set up some kind of refuge for animals.

“We asked some of the people out there to look out for land we could buy to set it up.”

The first four opportunities fell through when new owners of the land they wished to buy kept being found. However, eventually the couple set their eyes on a farm in Colenso, between Johannesburg and Durban, which would be suitable for the reserve.

“It didn't stay a small project for long,” said Dominique. “Almost immediately after we bought the farm the one next door approached us to sell theirs to us too. Then the owners of the one next to that and the one next to that sold to us too and before we knew it we had four-times the land we were expecting to fill.”

The reserve has now been called Colchester Zoo South Africa and has a manager and 15 members of staff from Colenso. Recently the couple went over to introduce ten giraffes into the reserve - the first species of many they hope to release.

“It was very emotional. Four of the animals came from a farm in Zulu land and their future hung in doubt. The other six came from a nearby farm and were perhaps not looked after as well as they could have been. So it was wonderful to see them being released and knowing they would have a lot of freedom from now on.

“It is not just the reserve that we are setting up. It is a community project and we spent a lot of time with the people from the area. We visited a nearby school which was just being rebuilt after a fire. We took them pens and pencils as presents and in return the children all sang to us. They told us how they love their shoes so much they take them off to walk to school and just wear them when they are there.

“We hope the reserve will set the community up with jobs and a bit more wealth.”

The couple admit they do not know what the future will bring but do say they would have more planed if they were 20 years younger.

“We have just bought some additional land here,” said Dominique, “and we hope to develop it within the next five years. We are also currently building a new orang-utan enclosure. We feel there is still a lot of heavy work to be done before our dream is complete.”

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Colchester Zoo

· 200 species of animals

· 41 of the species are part of the European Endangered Species Programme.

· Work on a new enclosure for Orang-utans is now well underway. This new exhibit will have room for at least four Orang-utans and cost in the region of £1.7million.

· The only zoo in England with a group of Gelada Baboons.

· The longest underwater straight tunnel than any other zoo in Europe.

· All Saints Church in the zoo grounds, is thought to be dated as early as 1260.

· Including insects, fish, birds and mammals there are over 3,000 individuals in Colchester Zoo's collection.

· Kito the baby elephant, was the first elephant to be born in the world after only one IVF treatment.

· Animals eat approximately 2,420 kilos of fruit and vegetables every week.

· It costs around £16,000 a day to run.

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