For Dave and Jo Marsden, working with animals is a labour of love and it certainly has to be when running your own zoo.
And now with the doors open for the busiest time of the year, the team at Lakeland Wildlife Oasis are readying themselves for another summer of visitors.
The popular family attraction, near Milnthorpe, is open every day of the year except for Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
But for Dave and Jo, and their committed, experienced staff of keepers and volunteers, life in a zoo never really stops, especially when caring for more than 100 different species from leaf cutter ants and free flying bats, meerkats and fossas to snow leopards.
Jo says: “When we first opened we didn’t have a day off together for a full year – if one of us wasn’t here, we were at home with our two children.
“And obviously there were days when the children were helping, too!”
It was 1992 when Dave and Jo opened the wildlife park on a former commercial plant farm – no more than a piece of land with a couple of high roofed glass houses.
Jo adds: “We had been site-hunting for a while and we knew it would be perfect. It was four months exactly from buying the site to opening.”
Dave, who studied zoology at Manchester University, spent 20 years ‘to the very day’ at Chester Zoo, primarily with primates and birds.
It was here he met Jo, one of the zoo’s first female zoo-keepers.
Dave says: “I loved working at Chester but I had this idea I wanted to run a place of our own.
“At the time the Natural History Museum in London was enjoying a huge surge in visitor numbers and it was thanks in part to the interactive experience they offered.
“I knew it would work with animals, too, and that is what we wanted to create when opening Lakeland.”
It is exactly what they did.
They moved in with a small collection of animals – with the idea of creating a number of interactive exhibits.
Jo adds: “It is very much about interaction – a chance for people to get very, very close and personal with the animals.
“We wanted to make it accessible – not watching figures on the horizon.”
The Oasis is designed to take visitors on a fun journey of evolution (from fossils and small insects through to birds and mammals) as they make their way around the site.
It was the couple’s passion for animals and conservation that led them building the zoo geared towards young children, hoping to inspire the next generation of zoo keepers.
They offer everything from snake and reptile handling and ‘touch-tours’ to a six-week junior keeper academy for children from eight years, which is hugely popular.
They also offer animal encounters, allowing visitors to get up close and personal to their favourite species.
The park gained charitable status in 2012 when Dave embarked on retirement, although much of his time is still dedicated on-site.
Jayne Gibbins, now the zoo manager, began as a Saturday girl – before a part-time role while she was studying for her degree in animal and zoo management at Chester University.
“We always start the day with feeding time, which is obviously one of the busiest jobs of the day but then there’s lots of washing up!
“You’re then preparing new feeds for the afternoon, cleaning and repair jobs – it’s a case of managing your highest priorities on the day and no day is the same.”
“There’s always something to do. You can start your day with a list but who knows what will happen!
“The best thing, though, no matter how terrible a your day might be, you never leave work in a bad mood, five minutes with the animals at the end of the day and you leave with a smile on your face. It is just amazing.”
And Jo adds it is the same for visitors, too, “One of the most satisfying, rewarding aspects for us is to see visitors’ faces .
“It is a little odd ball zoo but to hear people tell you what a lovely place it is to come is wonderful and it is for these people we do it for and have helped make it what it has become.
“Many of the families come time and time again and we once had tourists who came three times in a week!”