"It may not be a place you'd expect to find ostriches, antelope and camels, but 2009 saw Doncaster become home to all of these and more"
It may not be a place you'd expect to find ostriches, antelope and camels, but 2009 saw Doncaster become home to all of these and more. Yorkshire Wildlife Park is the brainchild of Cheryl Williams whose ambition to open an animal park with a difference has finally come to fruition.
Together with her husband, Neville, and business partner, John Minion, Cheryl began work in the winter of 2008 to transform the site into a state-of-the-art animal park, with a projected opening date of the following Easter. It was hampered, predictably, by the British weather. 'At one point the whole place was just a muddy mess,' says Cheryl. 'We had to re-roof the converted barn that we were turning into the café, and as soon as the building was open to the elements, of course, it snowed!' Cheryl, Neville and John moved into the onsite house, so they were around for any and every question and query.
Much perseverance and around £1.5m later, the park was ready for its opening to an intrigued public in April 2009. The aim is to allow people to experience the animals in an environment that is sympathetic to their natural habitats.
'Our key principle is that our animals have large open spaces where they can run to their maximum speed and demonstrate natural behaviours,' says Cheryl. 'Obviously, we can't rival Africa's climate but we're keen to offer different environments appropriate to the different species.
'We have woodland where our lemurs can jump between trees, wide fields to imitate the African plains, and boggy mud for our red river hogs to revel in - and their custom-built shelter with underfloor heating!
'There are also the wetlands, which not only provide incredible scenery, but also open up lots of future options.'
The animals are without doubt the star attraction. From the Lemur Woods, where you can meet three different breeds of the animals, to Wallaby Walkabout, there is lots
to see and do. There are also zebra, antelope, painted hunting dogs (the most endangered carnivore in Africa) and camels. And not forgetting the meerkats which, thanks to a certain TV ad, have become one of the park's star attractions.
With Cheryl's background in marketing, she even took full advantage in promoting the park when the meerkat babies were born, setting up a website where visitors could 'compare the meerkat babies' via a webcam.
For a break from all the animal antics, there is an onsite café that provides a tasty range of local produce, including cakes made by the local Women's Institute. There is also the Jungle Barn where youngsters with bundles of energy can play on giant slides and in a ball pit.
The site stretches 260 acres although, so far, the developed park sits among just 45. So there is plenty of room for growth, with early 2010 seeing the arrival of 13 lions from a condemned Romanian zoo. This, says Cheryl, is what the park is all about.
'Zoos and parks never buy or sell animals - instead, we swap and loan animals according to what best suits their needs and who can provide the best living environment at that time'.
Cheryl hopes that their work helps educate future generations of animal lovers about the importance of conserving endangered species. It's a full-time job but she says the satisfaction is second to none. 'We live onsite and even when the park is closed, caring for the animals doesn't stop,' she says. 'But waking up to the sounds of the animals and taking a walk around the park after we've closed up on a summer evening is just incredible.'
Cheryl's future ambitions are clear - to continue to create a happy home for more animals, and to welcome her favourite species to the park... tigers!
Go by train: Doncaster. Bus 91
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