Monday, February 21, 2011

The Cornish Dr Doolittles

Walking into Porfell farmhouse is like a childhood dream come true for an animal lover like me. A black and white cat lies curled up on a chair, while a white cockatoo sits on top of a large cage, chewing the wallpaper absently. Two elderly black labradors climb off a sofa and greet us joyously, cold wet noses nudging insistently. And then – I blink – warming itself in front of the woodburner –“is that a lemur?”

“Yes,” says Joy Palmer cheerfully. “He's called Stumpy and he sleeps on top of the dresser.”

“He's been poorly so that's why he's here,” adds John. “He's strokeable but you can't pick him up.” He smiles. “Our friends think we're mad – but they accept it.”

John and Joy Palmer opened Porfell Wildlife Park in 1989 but their journey started in 1973, when they left Solihull in search of a new beginning. “We'd always wanted a small farm but everything was too expensive or in a terrible state so we came down to Cornwall,” says John.

So they married in Liskeard, bought a house and moved down to Cornwall. Three years on they bought Porfell Farm near Lanreath, Liskeard – a run down farmhouse with no fences, burst pipes and no heating. Not an obvious choice for most people, but perfect for the Palmers because of the land. “Our house in Looe had a field behind it so we kept a couple of ponies there,” said John. “Then we got goats and chickens so we needed somewhere with more space.”

Money was very tight, but in 1979 they had twin boys so John built an extension which they let out to holidaymakers. “The guests enjoyed the farm so much they suggested opening a farm park, which we did in 1989,” says John. “We started with sheep, goats, a cow, ducks and chickens, then added deer, wallabies, a raccoon, coati and capybara.”

The more exotic animals arrived when they were asked to look after a raccoon which had been kept as a pet. “We needed a Dangerous Wild Animal licence for the raccoon, so having got it, we thought we might as well have other animals,” explains John.

John became friends with a lecturer from Plymouth College who was also a zoologist and he came to have a look at the park. “He introduced us to friends in the zoo world and this is how we started taking in animals from other zoos.” Animals now come from all over England. “The RSPCA, Customs and Excise, private keepers, animal welfare officers and other rescue organisations contact us,” says John. “We're expecting a group of 10 marmosets from a laboratory though fortunately they haven't been used in testing. And we're building a new enclosure for 4 macaques coming from a rescue centre in Holland.”

John and Joy's aim is to provide a safe haven for elderly and problem exotic animals for the rest of their lives. They provide the best possible environment to meet the individual need of the animals in their care and this has brought respect from zoos, wildlife parks and other rescue organisations.

Here at Porfell, visitors are able to get much closer to the animals than in most wildlife parks, so there is more interaction and opportunities to learn and understand more about animals through descriptions, talks and demonstrations. John explains, “There is a general lack of respect nowadays and if we can contribute in a small way to help others have more respect - for animals and the environment – then that can only be good.” He looks up. “Joy? What makes us different from other wildlife parks?”

Joy hoots with laughter. “We're always broke!” She reaches over to stroke Stumpy, the lemur. “We keep the animals for life - we give everything to them.”

In addition to a Children's Farm, John built an African Village following a trip to Kenya for his 70th birthday. “The safari was fabulous and as we'd already got zebra, I thought how lovely it would be to create an area here and call it African Plains,” John says. So he sketched out his ideas to create an African village which took four years to come to fruition. At the opening, in July 2010, a representative from the Kenyan High Commission cut the ribbon at the entrance of the Border Post, and TV presenter Nick Baker said, “It's the best example of a Maasai village this side of the equator.”

Running any kind of wildlife park must be a financial nightmare, and this one is no exception. “This has been a huge gamble, but you don't do this work for financial gain,” explains John. “We want to make enough money to take in more animals. We've gone short over the years but we work 7 days a week, 15 hours a day. But we both love animals and couldn't imagine doing anything else. It can be very hard in the winter and it's also very hard when you get attached to animals and they die. But you have to think that you've given them a good quality of life.”

He smiles. “I'd like to have a lot more money so we could have more visitors: we rely on the visitors entirely for our income. Vet's bills, food bills etc – it's very very hard in this economic climate.”

But like any business, John is always looking forward to the next opportunity. “We are opening the macaque section in April which is a large enclosure with special facilities because they are quite a dangerous animal so they need to be very secure,” he explains. “On the back of the African village, which has been a great success, we are working with a charity called Send-a-Cow who do a tremendous amount of work helping people out in Africa. They have chosen us as a venue in May for 2 weeks – we're having a Ugandan farmer staying with us so we've sent out invitations to schools to learn about life out there, and about sustainability in gardening and farming. We're fully booked at 60 students a day.”

Seeing their way of life, it's difficult to imagine the Palmers ever retiring. John laughs. “That word's not in my dictionary! No, I couldn't. Even on holiday I get restless and I'm always sketching out ideas.” Here Joy shouts to the cockatoo, “Pepsi! Stop chewing the skirting boards!”

John wards the cockatoo off the woodwork and gives him a stroke. “We must never get complacent and must always be alert and respect the animals' space,” he says. “Interaction must be always on their terms.” At this moment, Stumpy leaps over the sofa to snuggle down with one of the dogs and John smiles contentedly. “How wonderful it is to sit here and have a wild animal wandering around the house. That's an instance where the animal has made its choice to be with us.” He pauses. “Everyone should remember that though we think we own land or property we are actually only borrowing it for our lifetime and we have a responsibility to protect it for future generations.”

Porfell Wildlife Park and Sanctuary, Porfell, Trecangate, Lanreath, Liskeard PL14 4RE
(01503) 220211

Open February half term holiday for 2 weeks, then weekends until 1st April and daily until 1st of November 10am to 6pm.

Cornwall Today March 2011

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