Ponderosa Zoo is a little bit strange. It has this feel of being ‘designed’ by 5 different people with different ideas about what the zoo should be. It also has the strangest location and parking situation of any zoo I’ve been to (more below).
Despite this, I think it delivers a good afternoon’s entertainment for children without compromising on animal welfare. I went with my wife and son (only 2 months old – get them hooked early!) plus my brother, sister-in-law and niece (aged 10). While my son spent the whole time asleep in his pram, the rest of us had a great afternoon out.
Ponderosa Zoo History
Ponderosa Zoo doesn’t have your typical story of ‘stately home has animal collection and opens to the public. In fact, Ponderosa Zoo only opened in 1991 and wasn’t granted a zoo licence until 2004.
Back in the late 80s, a chap named Howard Cook MBE (though he wasn’t an MBE then) bought a neglected dairy farm just outside Dewsbury. He put up some greenhouses and offered out for students with disabilities to come and develop horticultural skills. At this time the zoo was actually called the Ponderosa Rural Therapeutic Centre.
In the early 1990s, his wife Maureen Cook took this a step further and introduced animals into the mix. Then the Ponderosa rare breeds farm was born. This would go on to grow to a collection of 150 animals by the early 2000s. By 2004, the collection was so large that a zoo licence had to be applied for, but the name wouldn’t change for a good few years.
From what I can tell 2004-2014 was a fairly quiet period for the zoo while it continued with its main aim of rehabilitation and therapy for disabled people. Then, in 2014, the Cooks decided to sell the zoo to focus elsewhere. What followed were three years of seemingly poor press coverage and some poor animal welfare. The council stated that standards were being met but I’ve seen pictures of some of the enclosures from back then and all I’ll say is that they must have been pretty low standards.
In 2017 things seemed to change. The zoo shut for refurbishments opening up with a much-improved set of enclosures. It also joined BIAZA (the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) which means it needs to hold itself to higher standards. It expanded its mission statement to include conservation as well as therapy for the disabled. Over time, I expect this will mean the zoo has more unusual animals and not just your typical lemurs and meerkats.
Ponderosa Zoo Visitor Experience
Ponderosa Zoo is just outside Dewsbury near Leeds. I’ll be honest… getting there is a little unsettling. Most zoos are well signposted from 5 miles out. Also, most zoos are off major A-roads. Ponderosa Zoo isn’t most zoos.
It is located at the back end of an industrial estate, and you will spend the last 5 minutes of your journey thinking… “is my satnav broken… surely there isn’t a zoo here”. Then you see a sign for Ponderosa Business Park and you think “could this be the same thing?”.
As you get closer you come across a grass verge with rows of cars parked along it. When we arrived, we still weren’t sure if this was the right place so we drove past them and found ourselves next to the visitors centre. This allowed us to see that there were still a few disabled spaces left before turning around and going to find a spot on the verge. My brother in his big camper van was sent to the bottom car park and had to walk back up to the entrance.
Booking has to be in advance at the moment but I’m sure I saw a couple of people just rock up in the queue ahead of us. And now I’ve mentioned the queue I’ll have my first proper grumble…
The queuing system to get in the zoo just doesn’t work. Everyone in the queue had a barcode on their phone which needed about 10 seconds to scan. With four families ahead of us this should have meant I got in the zoo within 2 minutes or so. Nope. It took us fifteen minutes to get through the doors. The issue was the till to scan entry barcodes was the same till that worked the gift shop. It also seemed that the shop had priority. Makes sense right… with money so stretched in zoos at the moment, you don’t want to lose your gift shop revenue by making those people wait too long. What they need is one of those bells you get in high street shops where when the queue is longer than 4 people, another member of staff comes to make sure people can get in the zoo.
However, the price itself is actually quite reasonable. Adults come in at £7.95 and Children (3-15) at £6.95 with under 3’s free. They also do a £22.95 family ticket for 2 adults and 2 children saving £7 or so. I didn’t get the chance to check the prices of the café or gift shop but the place didn’t have the feel of trying to rip you off.
When you get in the zoo it feels fairly clean. We’re not talking Disney levels of cleanliness but there was no noticeable litter and the bins were empty around the café so no issues there.
The (unisex) toilets were also pretty clean but they had a one-way system that made no sense. You queue by a door into a sink area to then go to the cubicles on the other side of the block to come back to the sinks to go back past the cubicles to go out. If that sounds difficult to understand then you get a sense of what it was like to be there. All they need to do is switch the entrance and exit doors round and it will work like a charm.
There were a couple of other quirks in the zoo which were a little like this. For example, outside the Red-fronted Brown Lemur exhibit was a narrow path that went to the end of the cages but then had no steps at the end. This meant if you did what I did and walked down there with a pram, you had to reverse out and everyone behind you had to shift out the way.
There also appeared to be no zoo maps anywhere. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know I love a paper map. However, while I don’t expect a paper map I do expect a few boards around the zoo. Especially in a small zoo, it means you don’t get to the end and go “oh, is that it”.
Now I’ve got a few things off my chest I’ll get back on to the positives. The one-way system worked really well (apart from the toilets). It took you past all the exhibits without needing to double back and without repeating anything. You never felt constrained by it but, on the other hand, you didn’t have any reason to really deviate from it.
The staff seemed pretty friendly too (or at least the ones working with the animals). I saw one or two talking with the public on the way round which is always nice.
Ponderosa Zoo has plenty of play areas. There is a big adventure play park set right in the middle of the zoo. From what I could see it looked massive and great fun. I almost wish I was small enough to go in there! It wasn’t integrated with any animal enclosures like at Flamingo Land but then again, I’m not sure how necessary that is. You are either playing or looking, not both.
Next to this, there is a big zip wire which had its own little queue. It was set behind the adventure play park and in a wood with some room to run around.
There is a second major play area at the back of the zoo. This is a pirate ship and beach themed area. I’m not really sure what this adds to the zoo. There isn’t any other pirate theming anywhere and surely this is just going to make your kids sandy?! That being said, I’m not 8 years old and there was plenty of evidence to suggest the kids absolutely loved it.
In the middle of the zoo, there is a lake with the friendliest koi carp I’ve come across. My brother and niece spend a very fun 15 minutes putting fingers in the water and having the fish suck on them. I’m not sure what an ornamental lake plus topiary is doing in the zoo and it was another thing that doesn’t feel joined up. It was still very nice though and I’m not complaining. I’d just suggest maybe including some exotic wildfowl and turning it into part of the zoo.
The views from the zoo aren’t that bad. As it is on a hill you get quite good vistas out over the Leeds countryside and from some angles you get a cool side shot of Dewsbury. The zoo itself doesn’t have much architectural merit but it is just fine.
To try and summarise the visitor experience I would say that it could be improved with some easy fixes but on the whole, it was a fun, clean, nice place to be. Though someone will need to explain to me why there is a pirate ship on a hill in Dewsbury.
Ponderosa Zoo Animal Collection
For its size, Ponderosa Zoo has a pretty solid animal collection. My brief count puts it at around twenty exhibits if you count the reptile house and nocturnal room as one each. This is enough room for the zoo to introduce a couple of interesting animals alongside the usual meerkats and marmosets.
By far the most interesting animal in the zoo was the serval. There are a smattering of these around the UK (maybe 20 zoos?) but they certainly aren’t common and I’d never seen one before. Servals are medium-sized wildcats from Central and Southern Africa with very long legs and a fantastic ability to jump very high. To help it achieve such lofty heights it has the longest legs relative to body size of any cat.
Sadly, servals are also one of the wildcats found in the black market pet trade. For somewhere in the region of £8,000-£10,000 you can buy a Serval from a registered UK breeder. They will make sure you have adequate provisions such as a secure outdoor enclosure, a licence from the local authority and plenty of space and training. Given these conditions, I don’t really have a problem with people keeping exotic animals. However, for £4,000 you can get a black market serval and no one is going to check your home and you avoid all the hassle. If you are found out, you risk jail but who is going to notice the massive cat you have in your 5th storey flat?
This particular serval is called Venus and was rescued from a flat in Halifax. The owner had applied for (and maybe been refused?) the dangerous animal permit but had gotten the cat anyway. In swoop the authorities and seize Venus while also doling out a hefty fine. Ponderosa Zoo stepped up to the mark and offered to provide a home to this beautiful creature.
While I was visiting it was lounging in the corner of its enclosure only 2m away from the public. It looked completely at home here and it is SUCH a beautiful animal. Here is my best picture…
Another exhibit to keep an eye out for is the short-clawed otters. It seems like every zoo I go to has otters and I never see them. Well, not this time. The enclosure is perhaps a tad small but the otters were on full display and they looked very, very happy. While we were there a couple of them were playing a game of seeing how long they could balance a stone on their chest. It was a cuteness overload.
The coati was a fun animal to see, something a little unusual that most people haven’t heard of. It’s a bit like a funny South American cross between a bear and a racoon. Unlike racoons though, the coati isn’t nocturnal so you get the chance to see them moving around in the daytime. They will probably be using their very dextrous nose to sniff out food on the floor.
There is a nocturnal room with some rats and mice in it plus a chinchilla, spiders and stick insects. I like a nocturnal room but I’m not sure their choice of animals was great here. The rats, mice, chinchilla and tarantulas were hiding in their beds so we left it pretty quickly.
However, the nocturnal house also shares the same building as the marmosets. I love primates and this zoo really didn’t disappoint. The marmosets were very charismatic coming right up to the cage bars to interact with visitors. Then round the corner, you come across the red-ruffed brown lemur in a long enclosure. They must be doing pretty well as one of them had a baby clinging to her (not that I could see it). Then there are the squirrel monkeys. These are a step up from the marmosets in size but still small enough to be happy in a small zoo.
On top of this, there are ring-tailed and black & white-ruffed lemurs in the lemur lookout. When we walked past there was a bit of a queue, so we decided not to go in. I think it actually shuts an hour before the zoo closes so you’ll need to make sure you don’t miss it if lemurs are a high priority for you.
The animals I found a little less impressive were the reindeer, racoon dogs, meerkats, alpaca, goats. I get that you need to pad out a zoo and I’m all for having some filler animals but I do not, and will never, believe an alpaca or a goat is a true zoo animal.
The reptile house was also a little disappointing. They had a very similar selection of animals as my local pet shop and I don’t think there were any particularly unusual creatures to grab my interest. Perhaps the mangrove snake with its very vivid yellow and black was the most interesting as it is also a little venomous. After the fourth stick insect enclosure, I was done with stick insects.
Before I finish talking about the animals I would be remiss not to mention the Scottish wildcats. As always, these were asleep or hiding but I like that zoos are trying to keep captive populations going. Hopefully, this will provide a base for reintroduction programmes in years to come.
Ponderosa Zoo Enclosure Quality
Ponderosa Zoo does a fine job of housing its animals. I’m not going to go and say they are the most innovative or beautiful exhibits but I’m pretty sure that most of the animals are going to be ‘happy’ in their homes.
My favourite enclosure was a tie between the squirrel monkeys and the marmosets. The squirrel monkey enclosure has a lot of height to it which makes the monkeys look much more at home. While I was there they were using the whole space and I thought it was fairly generous. The marmosets, while having less space, had three separate rooms they could visit which is essential in the case of any troop rivalries.
The best enclosure from a thematic point of view was the serval enclosure. They had the substrate, rocks and planting reminiscent of the African savannah. It was also visible from three sides but I don’t think you could view it in the house which seems a nice compromise between viewability and privacy.
I thought that the meerkat enclosure was probably the poorest. It was entirely indoors and mostly behind glass. That isn’t to say the meerkats were unhappy, far from it. It is simply that every zoo has meerkats and some zoos really knock it out of the ballpark. Yorkshire Wildlife Park, for example, has interconnected islands with tunnels that run under visitor paths. Flamingo land had a great outdoor space where you felt you could almost reach out and took a meerkat.
Another one that didn’t really work for me was the reindeer. The enclosure was huge but the viewing spots were fairly limited. This made it pretty difficult to see any reindeer. The only one we did see was in a breezeblock feeding house which wasn’t particularly aesthetic. I’m sure the reindeer really enjoyed all the space, woodland planting and privacy but I could have done with a better view!
I’ve seen pictures of the exhibits from 5 to 10 years ago and the improvements are remarkable! Maybe I’d like a slightly bigger otter enclosure and maybe I’d like a bit more natural planning in the exhibits but really, it’s fine for a small zoo.
Ponderosa Zoo Summary
Ponderosa Zoo wins through on having just enough interesting animals. It has got fairly good marks on its enclosures and loses a couple of points on visitor experience (points it could gain back with almost no effort).
If you are a major zoo enthusiast would I recommend you come here? Probably not. Every animal here can be seen somewhere else and Lotherton Bird Park up the road or Yorkshire Wildlife Park a little further away will give you a much more interesting time.
If you are a family looking for an afternoon out would I recommend you come here? Absolutely. Loads of places for kids to play, lots of things for them to look at and enough to keep you entertained too. Plus… surprisingly good coffee. All for very a reasonable price.