A zoo with a message

After 35 years of running a dairy farm as tenant farmers, Tony and Christina Bush bought the farm from the landlord and turned it into a zoo. But this is not just any zoo, it has a definite message to share.  Alison Hull went to find out more

Noah's Ark Zoo Farm opened its doors for its first full season in 1999. “We wanted to put Noah on the map – and so to put God on the map,” explained Tony Bush. “We want to remind people that God is there, and that he loves them. Most children today don't hear about God, so we remind people of him, as well as giving them a cracking day out!”

Reminders of God are woven all through a day at Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, but particularly in the presentations held in the Animals' Arena. Crammed with children (it was half-term) on the seats that rise up to the far wall, the arena is part of a huge building that is also given over to a huge play area with slides and ladders, and the front of this is modelled to look like the front of Noah's Ark – giving some indication of just how large a vessel it was.

The presentation is led by Tony, with animals being brought in for children to coo over and touch. And the message is constantly there – did you know that domesticated donkeys have crosses on their backs, a reminder of the fact that a donkey carried Jesus into Jerusalem for Passion Week? I didn't.

Tony is keen for those who come to the farm to realise that not everyone believes in evolution – that there are strong arguments in favour of biblical creationism, and the walls are plastered with information. But for most people, it is obvious that the appeal of Noah's Ark Zoo Farm is the animals themselves.

“We encourage lots of close handling of animals,” says Tony, “despite the health and safety people . . . Our attendance figures have gone up every year since we started, and reached 107,000 last year, with over 100 schools coming as well.”

So how hard was it to change a dairy farm into a zoo? Most of the animals live in fields as the cows must once have done, with specially designed cages for those that need them, such as the gibbons that will be arriving later this year.

“There was everything to do. Our more beautiful buildings were neglected by our former landlord, as they had no agricultural value, so we took all the roofs off, repaired, insulated and replaced them: took all the floors up, and put damp proof membranes and resurfaced and carpeted them; equipped a cafe, a shop, an animal holding barn and the play areas. Three years later we built the big slides and the arena – there were no grants available to us,” explained Tony.

“Outside, we started with 25 acres of our 300 acre farm, on which we put up two miles of fence for the first enclosures, and made a self-build playground inside and outside. Including restoring the buildings and the getting the first animals, this cost about £250,000, and we have added an average of over £50,000 each year since.”

So, what is it like to be running a zoo and  what issues have come up that didn't arise before, I wondered.

“Fortunately for us there is huge consistency that God has put into nature,” says Tony. “Everything eats, drinks, breathes and poos. Eyes, ears, legs and organs are in very similar places! The conditions and diets vary quite a bit, though. So we do quite a bit or research into each animal before we build its’ enclosure. We have a monthly vet visit where we try to put things right before they lead to disease.”

The response to the very public coverage of faith in the Animal Arena show, and also in the material on display about creation gets a varied response, says Tony.

'Christians, including Christian teachers, love it all and probably come again as a result. Most people do not say anything. We have heard of the Animal Show leading to Christian conversion. A tiny number of militant atheists get quite worked up about how we dare to imply that nature did not make itself and have tried on two occasions to stop all schools coming here. They may impress other atheists, but most people seem to make their own minds up, and judging by numbers, in our favour.”

The zoo is constantly developing and Tony outlined some of the plans for the future. “We are expecting tapirs shortly and have built their enclosure. A second giraffe is waiting for Blue Tongue restrictions to be lifted in Germany. Two varieties of large lizard are also awaited. We would like one day to build an elephant enclosure, but, as we have to keep at least four including a dangerous male, it is seriously expensive. A perfect solution might be a sponsor to share the cost.”
 I asked Tony if all their staff are Christians: “Many of our staff are Christians. All who apply know they should not be anti-Christian. We expect the highest integrity as we are dealing with children a lot.
“We have a prayer time each day for the staff, including young volunteers, when we read the Bible, have a short explanation and pray for the day. We pay our staff to be there (whatever their beliefs) because, I tell them, I need everyone's prayers for all we are doing. Several of our staff have come to faith while working with us.”
For my day out to Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, I borrowed two friends, Paul and Nicola, and their eight-year-olds, Luke and James. Both boys loved the Animal show, queueing up enthusiastically to help bottle-feed a calf, and then racing off to go on the slides. And to go back on the slides. And to go back on the slides again.
Prised off by promises of lunch, we went to the cafe and ordered. There was a good range of food on offer, and the jacket potato and salad options were filling, as were the paninis. The prices were very reasonable. The boys then shot off for another show that offered the chance to stroke a baby alligator, and then we toured the farm.
One of the main things that struck me was how well-kept the animals were. In the main, their coats were glossy and their eyes were bright. The Bactrian camels were beautiful, and I learned they have three sets of eyelids. The boys were more interested in feeding them. We also saw goats, llamas, rheas, a giraffe, sheep, rhinos and bison, deer, wallabies, hens, herons and peacocks, before being in the right place at the right time for the falconry display, where a Harris hawk was put through its paces.
The emphasis at the farm is accessibility – both with the animals where appropriate, and also with the staff, who are happy to answer questions. The farm received top marks from both the boys – not just for the play areas, the animals and the birds, but also the tractor rides, zip wires, assault courses, trampolines . . .

Take it further

Find out more about Noah's Ark Zoo Farm from their website or contact Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm,
Clevedon Road, Wraxall, Bristol BS48 1PG
Tel: 01275 852606