BLOG: IN FOCUS - The head of the herd is calling ...
ANTHONY Bush has experienced his fair share of controversy ever since he set up Noah's Ark Zoo Farm back in the 1990s – whether for his creationist views, or his penchant for keeping larger exotic animals against the general flow towards focusing on the smaller end of the scale in UK zoos.
But as I stood with him in a biblically muddy field, a short distance from the village of Wraxall, it seemed no surprise that his brow should be perpetually knotted with concern as he prepares to unveil his "Elephant Eden" this summer.
At a cost of £1.2m, the latest addition to the north Somerset attraction, currently taking shape at a rate of knots, is a major investment – and with 30 per cent of the funding coming from a DEFRA-managed diversification grant connected to a series of defined building goals, it's important that his construction team keep on track for a March completion.
On top of this kind of stress, he says he has had to contend with welfare organisations such as the RSPCA and the Born Free Foundation admonishing him for wanting to keep elephants in a UK zoo in the first place – there is after all, a long and sorry history of the animals' physical and psychological well-being getting badly served by zoos across Europe.
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Our heavyweight cards have FREE UV silk coating, FREE next day delivery & VAT included. Choose from 1000's of pre-designed templates or upload your own artwork. Orders dispatched within 24hrs.
Terms: Visit our site for more products: Business Cards, Compliment Slips, Letterheads, Leaflets, Postcards, Posters & much more. All items are free next day delivery. www.myprint-247.co.uk
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Friday, May 31 2013
But Anthony is keen to prove that not only will his enclosure be different – it will provide a haven for captive-bred Asian elephants, where the endangered species will have the space and state-of-the-art facilities to help them to breed.
For 35 years, Anthony and his wife Christina worked Moat House Farm as tenant dairy farmers. In 1995 they purchased the farm, sold the Friesian herd, and converted the 310 acres to arable land and sheep raising, while building up a collection of more exotic species – from lions and tigers to giraffes and emu. But they have never tackled anything on quite this sort of scale before.
At 20 acres, this will be the largest elephant enclosure in Europe – twice the size of its nearest UK rival at Chester Zoo.
And Anthony and his team are clearly trying to tick all the right boxes to put the RSPCA's concerns at ease – from installing one-metre deep sand yards for improved sanitation to building elaborate puzzles to keep the elephants' brains occupied – including underground piping that will allow the elephants to search for food secreted below the ground in pipes.
Add to all this stress the fact that the zoo has not yet employed a specialist elephant keeper – regulations insist on the head elephant keeper having a minimum of five years' experience in an elephant house – they can't be easy candidates to find, given the move against keeping elephants in UK zoos in recent years. Then finally add the fact – most significant of all perhaps – that they have not yet secured any elephants for the attraction.
You can understand why Anthony might be feeling a lot of weight on his shoulders – it must feel as if he already has a seven-tonne bull elephant leaning against him. But Anthony and his team are convinced that individual elephants will become available in the coming weeks and months – creatures who are unhappy at their current zoos, or even rescue animals taken from circuses or private collections.
After all, it is understandable that zoo keepers from European zoos would want to see the complex completed at Wraxall before they sign over any of their beloved elephants.
But is he nervous?
"Not at all,"Anthony told me. "I can't wait for the elephants to arrive. I've wanted to create this enclosure for a long time."
Five years in the planning, it would become the jewel in the crown of Noah's Ark Zoo Farm – and projections estimate it could lead to a 20 per cent increase in visitor numbers, an additional 40,000 visitors each year. Whether you love or loathe the idea of captive breeding of endangered elephants in European zoos – you can't help but admire the sheer scale of Anthony's vision.
Feature writer David Clensy writes The Post's daily Focus features
For more information on the new attraction click here.