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Our history

A century of conservation

Wild Planet Trust can trace its history back to one man: Herbert Whitley.

His love for animals and the natural world helped to create Paignton Zoo more than a century ago, and his legacy can be seen in our multiple sites across the UK, along with our international projects.

Herbert Whitley

Herbert Whitley was born in 1886, into a family of considerable means. His father, Edward Whitley was the owner of a brewery empire and the MP for Liverpool. When he was 18, his family moved to the Primley Estate in Paignton.

His fascination with the living world began at an early age with the gift of a pair of canaries from his mother. Herbert’s collection increased rapidly, and it wasn’t long before the greenhouses and outhouses of Primley were full of plants and animals. The grounds of the Primley Estate would later become Primley Park: a green space in the middle of Paignton that is open for all to enjoy.

Herbert had a particular interest in the colour blue, and many of his early projects involved the breeding of animals and flowers that displayed his favourite colour. Herbert and his older brother William were well known locally as breeders of prize-winning livestock, although it was in 1910, with the arrival of his first monkeys, that the seeds were sown for what was to become Paignton Zoo.

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1921 – Herbert Whitley purchases Slapton Ley to save it from development
 – Torbay Zoological Gardens, founded by Herbert Whitley, opens
1930 – First name change to become Primley Zoological Gardens
1940 – Second name change to become Devon’s Zoo and Circus
1946 – Third name change to Paignton Zoological and Botanical Gardens
1955 – The Herbert Whitley Trust is founded upon Herbert’s death
1991 – The Trust is renamed to become Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust
1996 – Paignton Zoo rebrands for the fourth time to become Paignton Zoo Environmental Park
2003 – Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust purchases Newquay Zoo in Cornwall
2003 – Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust opens a coastal zoo and aquarium called Living Coasts in Devon
2019 – Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust becomes Wild Planet Trust
2020 – Living Coasts closes permanently
2023 – Paignton Zoo celebrates its centenary

The importance of wild places

In 1921, Herbert discovered that Slapton Ley – a coastal lagoon just 20 miles from Paignton – was under threat of development. He believed that habitats should be conserved to protect the different species that live there and bought the land in order to protect it.

This recognition of the importance of wildlife and wild places has always underpinned our work and continues to do every single day.

Zoos as places of education

Herbert also recognised the valuable role that zoos can play in educating people about the natural world. In 1923, Torbay Zoological Gardens (now known as Paignton Zoo) opened its gates to the public for the first time.

Entry cost one shilling (5p) for adults and sixpence (2.5p) for children. Visitors could see a wide range of animals, from bears to monkeys, and birds to hyenas.

In 1924, the zoo closed briefly due to a dispute over entertainment tax: Herbert believed that zoos were places of learning, rather than entertainment, and both education and engagement remain at the heart of our work today.

A legacy of conservation

When Herbert died in 1955, at the age of 69, he made a provision in his will for a scientific and educational trust to be established. This led to the formation of the Herbert Whitley Trust, which became the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust in 1991.

In 1996, the name of Torbay Zoological Gardens was changed to Paignton Zoo and in 2003, Newquay Zoo in Cornwall was also purchased by the Trust.

A new era

In 2019, the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust became Wild Planet Trust. The new name was chosen to reflect the charity’s modern, inspiring and inclusive approach to conservation.

Wild Planet Trust supports conservation in the United Kingdom and overseas using funds generated by the people who visit the zoos, along with the expertise and dedication of its staff.