Bristol Zoo Gardens shuts its doors for final time after 186 years

Bristol Zoo Gardens is now working to move it's animals to other sites around the UK Credit: PA

The fifth oldest zoo in the world has shut its doors for the last time after 186 years.

Bristol Zoo Gardens closed for good at 5.30pm on Saturday (3 September) to rapturous applause from a crowd of visitors that had gathered outside.

A plaque was then hung on the main entrance gates by two members of staff, which bore the words: "Thank you for the memories." A member of the public then led the crowd in three cheers for staff as they took a group photo in front of the plaque.

The zoo's last week saw more than 29,000 people visit the site, equivalent to a typical month's worth of visitors. Meanwhile, huge queues trailed from the front door on Saturday, with thousands taking one last opportunity to see the site.

Members of staff were applauded by a large crowd when they took a photo in front of the plaque on the day the site shut

'I thought I was going to retire here'

The closing of the site is a 'bittersweet' moment for members of staff, some of whom have worked there for decades.

Simon Garrett, head of public engagement, worked at the zoo for 32 years and set up its first email address. He said: “I’m not planning to cry, but I’ve lost it once or twice this morning, I’ll be perfectly honest.

“It’s really mixed emotions. It’s exciting, I love seeing the zoo as it is, but then again it’s going to get to 5.30pm and then I’m probably going to lose it," he added.

Another member of staff, Jade Money, worked at Bristol Zoo for nine years as a retail assistant, but returned for the last day having been on maternity leave for a year.

She said: “All morning I’ve been crying, we just had to get behind (the desk) and get on with the day. I just constantly get goose pimples from it. It’s so emotional.

"The world's oldest provincial zoo": The sign placed on the gates of Bristol Zoo Gardens on the day that it closed Credit: Barbara Evripidou / First Avenue Photography

“I’ll miss the lions roaring every morning – when I used to come in the morning for work they used to roar. I’m going to miss that, waking us all up ready for our day.

“I never thought this place would shut, I thought I was going to retire here"

The zoo opened in Clifton on 11 July 1836 and has since welcomed more than 90 million visitors.

Notable animal residents have included Alfred the gorilla, who arrived at the Zoo in 1930 and died in 1948; Wendy, an Asian elephant, who lived at the Zoo until 2002 and often gave rides to the public; and Sebastian, the polar bear who was born in 1958.

But after almost 190 years, the zoo has finally shut and plans are now being made to rehouse all of the creatures living at the attraction.

The decision to close the site was announced in November 2020. The organisation behind the zoo, the Bristol Zoological Society, has said it hopes the closure will help it "focus on its mission of Saving Wildlife Together, and create a new Bristol Zoo at the Wild Place Project site".

The 136 acre venue in South Gloucestershire is far larger than the Clifton site, which was around 12 acres.

Bosses hope the Wild Place Project site will "offer an inspiring wildlife experience with conservation and education at its heart".

It is planned for 80% of species on site at the Wild Place Project to be linked to conservation programmes in the world - a higher percentage than at any other zoo in the UK.

Thousands of people took the opportunity to visit the Clifton site on the zoo's last day

The zoo’s troop of critically endangered western lowland gorillas and blue-eyed black lemurs are set to move to the new site.

Meanwhile, there are plans for other animals including the giant tortoises, pink pigeons and flamingos to be sent to other zoos and conservation centres around the UK.

Speaking on Saturday, Brian Zimmerman, Bristol Zoological Society’s director of conservation and science, said: “This truly is an end of an era – an era full of wonderful memories for staff and visitors alike. 

“Bristol Zoo Gardens holds a special place in the hearts of many and has become an institution in the city of Bristol.

"While we recognise its importance and respect its legacy, the time has come for us to build a modern-day zoo with the right space for our animals that more closely reflects their natural habitats.”

What will happen to the site of the zoo in Clifton?

The owners of the site are currently waiting for planning permission to turn the site into a space for more than 200 homes in a range of sizes, of which 20% will be affordable.

The gardens themselves though would remain publicly accessible for free under the proposals, while historic features such as the aquarium building and Monkey Temple - both which date from the 1920s - would be preserved.

A decision about the future of the Bristol Zoo Gardens site is expected later this year when Bristol City Council planners meet to decide on the application.