A lazy blogpost for October 2017 – If you want to read one person’s entertaining view of Newquay Zoo’s history from 1993-2003, then this is the book to read.
Strange Things Happened On My Way To The Zoo by Mike Thomas
Published in 2010 by Cornish publisher Alison Hodge, copies are still available on Amazon, your local library and there are some good online bargains on second-hand copies.
‘Strange Things’ is the nearest thing we have to a Newquay Zoo history in print so far, albeit only covering the Newquay Animal World / Newquay Zoo years of private ownership from 1993-2003 by Mike Thomas and Roger Martin.
Mike grew up in Wales, taught in Cornwall, ran several businesses and eventually ran the Seal Sanctuary in Gweek until 1993/4. As a result, Newquay Zoo’s part of the Mike Thomas story only begins 56 pages in but fills the rest of the 100 odd pages of pictures, many of the pictures by zoo photographer Michelle Turton.
There is too much to summarise in these 100 pages but it covers the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001, the Red Arrows ‘visit’, the 1999 Eclipse, various famous faces opening new enclosures, several years tracking down the truth behind the local Exotic Big Cat stories, along with many special animal births and a few sad partings.
I knew Mike and Jenny before they took on the zoo and when it first reopened, I was soon added to the small staff team, mostly in my case to set up a Zoo / College partnership and develop the promising schools work.
I’m mentioned in passing and pictured in the book, and was proud to attend the book’s launch at Fowey Literary Festival 2010 with fellow zoo college colleague and Alison Hodge author Dr. Mike Kent. Mike, Mike and I worked on the founding partnership of Cornwall College Newquay courses.
Gerald Durrell’s influence from Jersey Zoo is recognised in the book and also in the name of one of our college buildings.
Mike Thomas, ever the former teacher, mentioned on his retirement in 2003 that this college partnership was one of his proudest achievements of his ten zoo years.
Now properly retired, Mike and his wife Jenny still pop in to the zoo quietly from time to time with various grandchildren to see how things have developed under the charitable trust ownership of the Whitley Wildlfe Conservation Trust, which took over running Newquay Zoo in 2003. He is especially pleased how Cornwall College Newquay has grown and thrived since its beginnings in the year 2000.
My Amazon review at the time of the launch (2010) proabably says all I have to say about the book:
“Like others who’ve read & reviewed the book, this was revisiting an earlier part of my working life for me too at the same zoo. It’s a highly readable book (and I know a lot had to be left out too in this volume) but doesn’t avoid any of the difficulties we went through redeveloping the zoo. Mike crops up in Ben Mee’s ‘zoo rescue’ book too. Money was often very tight and Mike’s showmanship, gift of the gab, sense of humour and imagination were often needed. Often you can see how these qualities were drawn from his early life and experiences As a result, the book has its fair share of funny stories and character animals too, many of whom I remember (sometimes painfully, I got bitten by a fair few!) just as Mike describes them.”
“Researching the challenges facing wartime zoos as I am at the moment, I’ve read lots of zoo memoirs especially by directors. I know that it must be difficult fitting all one’s own viewpoint of complex, funny and difficult situations into one book and how difficult it is to describe to fit all the unusual characters encountered (zoo animal and human) in one volume, so I look forward to book two!”
Surfing Sue, another former member of staff, wrote on Amazon review:
“As a fellow traveller on some of Mike’s strange journey I knew much of the story but by no means all. He has led a fascinating life full of interesting characters, both human and animal. There’s Randy the potato loving raccoon, Peru the streetwise penguin and Exotic Clive the… you’ll have to read the book to find out what or who Clive is. Mike has an entertaining writing style that evokes the feeling of a coffee time chat rather than a faceless narration. His passion for education and dedication to the creatures in his care are an inspiration, as are the accolades he achieved whilst at the helm of the zoo.”
The book is a small tribute to a lot of hard work by a lot of people and to the great support by its many visitors over the years.
Not every event from 1993 to 2003 could have made it into this short book. Not every member of zoo staff could be mentioned and many were the stories that staff regretted never made it into the book.
After all, it is Mike’s life story and can only be one person’s view of running the zoo – many of the other stories are tucked away in our Archive in the pages of Paw Prints our zoo newsletter. Material for future blog posts!
Several of our previous blog posts feature material from “The Mike Thomas Years” (1993-2003) at Newquay Zoo.
Posted by Mark Norris, Newquay Zoo history blog, October 2017.