Romford couple move to Scotland to fulfil their dreams of opening zoo

PUBLISHED: 14:00 21 August 2017 | UPDATED: 17:09 21 August 2017

Briony Taylor and Mike Knight. Photo: Kris Miller.

Briony Taylor and Mike Knight. Photo: Kris Miller.

Kris Miller/DC Thomson.

Moving 450 miles from your home to buy, build and run a zoo might sound like a madcap scheme straight out of Hollywood, but for one Havering couple that ambition has become a reality.

The team at Fife Zoo. The team at Fife Zoo.

Briony Taylor, originally from Wales, and her boyfriend Mike Knight, who grew up in Romford, met when they were both studying International Wildlife Biology at the University of Glamorgan. When they graduated, in 2011, they spent time working in zoos around the country, including in Devon. But finding two jobs in the same place was proving difficult.

“We realised we’d probably have to live apart from each other,” says Briony, “which wasn’t going to work long-term if we wanted to sustain our relationship.

“While we decided what to do, we moved in with Mike’s mum and dad in Romford. One day we were joking around with them, saying that we could buy a zoo, and they were like, ‘yeah dream on’.”

But when Briony and Mike started to get really serious, in 2013, and investigate potential sites via the internet, Mike’s parents, Ann and Reginald, were much more sympathetic. “Hats off to them, they said, ‘Whatever you need to do, we want to be a part of that’.

Sloth Play, the soft play area now open at Fife Zoo. Sloth Play, the soft play area now open at Fife Zoo.

“Originally we were looking at Durham, because we mapped out the UK and thought, where is there a gap for zoos – Durham. Literally that is the place to build a zoo. But when we were there we went through planning application after application and they kept raising the bar.

“We thought, well we’re spending a lot of money and a lot of time here and we’re not getting anywhere. We were at a bit of a low point and Mike started looking elsewhere.”

That was when they hit upon Fife. “It used to be called Fife Animal Park. As soon as we’d seen the site, we got in the car and said, ‘Yes, that’s everything we needed’. There was a car park, the buildings were there – we could see what we needed to do with it. So we just thought ‘yes’.

“Three months later, in July 2015, Mike’s mum and dad sold everything, we all moved on-site together, and we’re still here.”

So, at the age of just 25, Briony was the proud co-owner of a zoo. Well, not quite – once you’ve bought the site, how do you go about populating it with animals? “Each zoo should have a collection plan,” Briony explains. “We have a 10 year collection plan – it’s like a bit of a wish list in a way, but it’s also knowing where you’re going in the future and setting goals.

“We’re splitting the zoo geographically, so we’ll have Africa, South America and Asia. At the moment we’re doing an African plains area, which will have our two Grévy’s zebra, [the couple’s first and so far only animals], and I hope an African antelope. We’re also hoping to get gibbons, and open a meerkat enclosure and an African aviary.”

It’s not as easy as just ticking off a list, though. “The animals come from other zoos,” Briony tells me. “Probably 90 per cent of zoos are connected in some way, and there are strict criteria – you couldn’t just get anything.

“Grévy’s zebra is an endangered species, so we are very lucky to have received the two males we have. Their names are Marty and Jez. They were really good breeders, but when it gets to a certain point, and their genes have been well dispersed, they castrate them to stop in-breeding and overpopulation of Marty and Jez’s genes, which could potentially lead to a bottleneck with the species. Zoos play an important role within conservation and conservation breeding.”

Moving from Romford to the wilderness of Fife was a mild culture shock, Briony concedes, but it’s a change of lifestyle she relishes. “I’m a very outdoorsy person. I love opening the door and seeing the moon, not having pollution and seeing the stars. The wildlife is phenomenal. You do miss certain things, like just popping to the shop, but I’m happy to sacrifice that – it’s amazing.”

How did her family and friends react when they found out, I wonder? “They thought we were mad! Everyone was like, ‘You’re what? Doing what?’ I think we’re quite used to those reactions now.

“Whenever I’m on the phone doing business, and they say can I have your address, I say Fife Zoo and they say ‘What, Fife Soup?’ I literally have to spell it out, and then they say, ‘You live in a zoo?!’ I always have to explain the story; I can never just leave it at that. Everyone wants to know.”

So is there anything she misses about her old life? “You miss your family and friends, but they want to come and see you. It works well because me and Mike are together, so that helps, and it’s very family-run – Mike’s mum and dad work here and my brother John now too.

“He surprised us one day. He basically just phoned out of the blue and said, ‘Can you pick me up?’ I said, ‘I actually live in Scotland now’ and he said, ‘No, I know – I’ve just walked into Scotland’. He walked, would you believe, all the way from Wales to Scotland.

“He’s calling it an early mid-life crisis, as he’s only 28. He thought, ‘What do I need?’, and sold everything except his dogs, and literally backpacked up the country. He walked for three weeks.”

For now, Mike and Briony are using the profits from a soft play area and cafe they’ve already opened on the site, along with an army of volunteers and a crowdfunding initiative, to construct the rest of the zoo. So far they’ve raised more than £4,000 of their £100,000 crowdfunder target, and they hope to open next year, once they have their license and can expand the range of animals on site.

“It’s exciting,” Briony says before she dashes off to get back to work. “It’s stressful, but it’s quite exciting.”

To donate towards the construction of the zoo, or to sponsor one of the animals, visit here.

Additional reporting by Ellie Greenhill.

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