‘Escaped animals and fleeing a fire with a pig in my arms’ – memories of Kilverstone Wildlife Park
- Credit: Archant
For most, a trip to the zoo is a day out with the family but for Stuart Holmes-Smith it was a career and the former Kilverstone Wildlife Park and Latin American Zoo, in Thetford, was the centre point where he and his wife, Caroline, raised their family. Reporter Marc Betts went to meet him on the Kilverstone Estate, where he still lives.
Set at Kilverstone Hall, the home of the late Lord John Vavasseur Fisher and his second wife, Lady Rosamund, Kilverstone Wildlife Park was opened in April, 1972.
Mr Holmes-Smith, 65, was born in Kenya to British parents and moved back to England for his education. After leaving grammar school he knew he wanted to do one thing, work with animals. Little did he know that in 1974 it was the start of a 45-year career that would involve an escaped bison, raising spider monkeys and finding himself naked outside with a dog in one arm and a pig in the other.
Beginning at the park
Mr Holmes-Smith said: “I wrote to a number of wildlife parks but one of the places I wrote to knew that the zoo was opening and needed staff.
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“We came to the estate in 1974 and have been here ever since. We have two children, William and Henrietta, who are in their 30s and work for the NHS.
“Raising a family here it became natural and that’s what life was. Just because there are wild animals in your garden it was neither here or there.
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“We would occasionally have sick or young animals in the house and Caroline was great especially with the monkeys.”
On Henrietta’s first day of school Mr and Mrs Holmes-Smith were called into her teacher’s office. During a colouring session little Henrietta had drawn a picture of two horses mating. When the parents were asked ‘is this normal?’ They replied ‘yes’ as she had been helping to breed them.
Family growing up with animals
“In the home we had spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys, marmosets, and many more but obviously down in the park, we had lots of young animals who needed special care.
“It was the idea that the parents of the animals look after them the best as possible.”
The family also lived with a foul-mouthed cockatoo who had picked up the strong language after being told to go away by a keeper who had been cleaning its pen as it tried to grab his broom.
The great escapes
“The spider monkeys would get out at night and they were relatively tame so to catch them we would turn all the lights except one room and they would go to that room, they were black so we wouldn’t have been able to catch them at night.
“One night in the late 80s we were called out in the middle of the night by the police as one of our bull bison had got out.
“He was tame as he was hand reared but he was fully grown and he had walked into Thetford.
“A man ran to the police station and said ‘there is a bison walking up the street’, the police assumed the guy was drunk but he was completely sober as the bison walked past the station.
“It ended up on the roundabout of the Bridge Pub and by that time we got to him to calm him down before the vet darted him.
“But before we got there he had managed to give an ice cream van a good smack and a police car a good seeing to.”
The Kilverstone fire
“In 1992 there was a large fire. We were looking after a pot-bellied pig in our kitchen and I woke up at 2.30am and the place was ablaze.
“I ran down and picked up the pig from the kitchen then came to use the windup telephone so I had to put the pig on the ground.
“Phoned the fire bridge and the power went out. I was in the dark with a pig I couldn’t find running about. I crawled along the ground and found the pig and grabbed the dog and ran out of the house.
“But once I was outside I realised I was in the garden with no clothes on and a pig in one hand and a dog in the other.
“Despite the humour it was extremely frightening.”
The park closing
In 1991 the zoo closed to the public with staff being let go and all the animals needing new homes.
Mr Holmes-Smith said: “It was a very difficult time. We had more than 1,000 animals and 40 staff, all of whom were being made redundant but over a gradual period.
“We had to find new homes for all the animals, catch them, box them up and send them away. As the numbers decreased we would have to say goodbye to another member of staff.
“It was the worst time in my life. It was absolutely awful and I vowed I would never work in a wildlife park again. The attachments you make with the staff and animals are so important and when it all breaks down it is not pleasant.”
After the park closed Mr Holmes-Smith stayed on working for the Fisher family on the grounds.
He is now retiring and moving on from Kilverstone Hall.