When travel firm boss Peter Sampson took over a rundown zoo he had no idea of the journey it would take him on.
Not only did he know nothing about animals, but the zoo had been condemned as Britain’s worst.
Its sole lion, Bobby, lived in a converted bird enclosure. Animal welfare protesters were camped outside permanently.
Undeterred, Peter handed over £100,000 for the animal park in 1984 – on April Fool’s Day.
But this was no joke. “I’ve always liked a challenge and decided to throw myself into this,” recalls Peter.
“Seeing the animals’ state, something in me wanted to make their lives better, with no profit motive.
“You could write what I knew then about animals on the back of a postage stamp.”
Now, 33 years later, he has put his own stamp all over it. His Paradise Wildlife Park has a Gold Award for its breeding and welfare programme – and has the distinction of breeding Britain’s first jaguar cub.
Peter, now 77, had first hoped to use some of the site at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, to store his fleet of 70 coaches – keeping a small park going as an attraction for schools.
“The zoo was like a breaker’s yard, totally run down,” he says.
“There were nine enforcement notices on it. The wells were overflowing, the animals were inbred and poorly.
“I thought I could perhaps get the animals back to health and sell them on, or run a very small-scale operation for school trips, then use the remaining land for my fleet.”
But the site was in the green belt, with no chance of permission for development.
And after meeting Bobby and the zoo’s other animals – a few reptiles and snakes, camels, a couple of farmyard animals and a small group of macaques – Peter quickly realised it was his coach empire that would be taking the back seat.
The Zoo Licensing Authority gave him 18 months to get the park up to scratch. So, in scenes that could almost come from the 2011 Matt Damon movie We Bought a Zoo, Peter sat down with son Steve and daughter Lynn to thrash out a plan.
“Without hesitation they said they’d do everything they could to help,” says Peter. “With them on board I knew I could do this. It would be a steep learning curve, but the more people told me it wouldn’t work, the more I wanted to prove them wrong.”
Steve, then 22, was already in the family business, while 21-year-old Lynn worked for Tottenham Hotspur FC, organising coach trips.
Every spare minute was used to demolish and replace old buildings, cages and fencing and add much-needed facilities – a vet’s room, food preparation room and more. Peter says: “Steve lived on site in a caravan with two friends – with the animals living with them.
“There were tortoises, monkeys, snakes… it was slightly crazy popping in for a cup of tea.”
And Bobby needed a new home. Steve says: “We had the welding kit from the coaches, so with advice from other zoos we built a new fit-for-purpose lion enclosure.”
The hard work paid off in July 1985 when they won their zoo licence. And on April 1, 1986 they reopened. The transformation in the 31 years since has been massive.
The park – now with more than 500 wild animals – has just bred Britain’s first jaguar cub.
It has also just picked up a Gold Award for Animal Breeding, Care and Welfare at the National Zoo and Aquarium Awards.
It gets more than 300,000 visitors a year, and in the summer employs 150 staff plus an army of volunteers. It regularly sends animals to other zoos around the world. The zoo also breeds penguins, gibbons, tamarins, marmosets and lemurs.
“It was daunting,” admits Steve. “But it was massively exciting thinking of the potential to create something new and different.”
Lynn and partner Craig also had success with breeding – their sons Aaron, 25, Tyler, 24, and Cameron, 21, all grew up looking after animals and are all on staff. Marketing manager Tyler says home-rearing lion and tiger cubs was a highlight. “We had to look after our lion cub Zara for five months, bottle feeding her in our living room,” he says.
“Aaron slept with Zara for a couple of months – I remember the school asking why he seemed tired.
“We also hand-reared our tigers Rocky, Amba and Padmini at home.
“Having all kind of animals at home was just the norm. Our friends loved coming to ours.” Lynn, now 53, says it was “magical” for the children. She adds: “They’d develop these incredible relationships with the animals and really understand each one.
“That reaffirmed in our minds the way we wanted to run our zoo – we knew immersing our visitors would be of maximum benefit”
The family sold their coach business, and in 1994 opened an enclosure for Bengal and Siberian tigers.
In 2001 they purchased the Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent from the Born Free Foundation, breeding critically endangered cats.
The BBC is currently tracking its lion expert, Giles Clark, for a wildlife documentary.
Peter is proud of his achievement. “Remembering the state of Bobby, I have to pinch myself to think we’re now sending home-bred lions around the world.”
He adds: “When I bought it on April 1, everyone thought I was a fool. But I’m the happiest fool alive.”