“Honey, I bought a zoo!”
That’s what Paul Woodward told his wife Alison he had done with his Army lump sum – the payout he received after 23 years in the service.
He has owned Bridlington Birds of Prey and Animal Park for two years and worked as a volunteer for seven years before buying the 21-acre site at Carnaby.
During his Army days, he was stationed at Leconfield in the East Riding. The couple, who have a daughter Stephanie, 25, loved the area so much they decided to stay after Paul left the Army.
They have been here 17 years and live in Hornsea.
Paul has plans for the centre, which was first a pet shop, then a pet shop with birds of prey and then ‘morphed’ into what it is now.
These plans will come to fruition on October 21, 2019. That is his 50th birthday and the day when the park will be rebranded as Bridlington Zoo.
“When we took it over we decided we were not in it for the money. It is non-profit making,” said Paul. “Every penny we make goes back into the park.”
It was the birds of prey which first attracted Paul to the centre. It is home to snowy owl Hedwig and great grey owl Errol (named after the owls in Harry Potter), Bengal eagle owls Balti and Korma and emus Rod (after Rod Hull) and Stewart.
There are wallabies, raccoons, llamas, alpacas, pigs, sheep, Elvis the Royal Python and adorable meerkats.
“The meerkats like having me and the staff around. When they can see us they assume we are standing sentry so they relax and forage,” said Paul.
The meerkats are so popular, the centre offers a meerkat experience package on top of the normal entry fee.
In the coming months, yak, zebra, wildebeest and antelope will be introduced to newly-constructed paddocks. Longer-term Paul wants to build a new entrance and a cafe with accommodation above.
There are feeding times which visitors can take part in, they can handle reptiles and birds of prey and watch daily birds of prey flying displays. There is also a paddock packed with props used by photographers. Up close and personal is the order of the day.
All the animals appear tame, curious and comfortable in their surroundings and have their own Dr Doolittle with their interests firmly at heart.
Paul is so ‘in tune’ with the birds and animals he calls to them in hoots, whistles and barks, patting them and ruffling their feathers, as he goes round the centre.
“They are talking back to me, make no mistake,” said the humble but passionate birdman ofB ridlington.
“Balti the owl prefers me to his mate,” he jokes and Balti is waiting for Paul’s visit with the gift of food in its beak for his keeper.
Charlie the parrot, who lives in the centre’s reception, will only let Paul near, says park keeper of four years Richelle Parkes.
She studied animal behaviour and training at university, visited the centre as a child with her grandmother, did her work experience at the centre and was a volunteer before being offered a full-time job.
“We are not London Zoo but they cannot do what we do. What sets us apart and makes us unique is the interaction between visitors and the animals and birds,” said Paul.
“Plus our birds are not tethered in any way.
“When we take them out for displays they could fly away at any time – but we have not lost one yet.”