Ken and other animals – a life of conservation
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2014
Ken Sims looks after hundreds of animals at the wildlife gardens he created at the heart of the Norfolk Broads - and this summer received an extraordinary honour for his work to safeguard the future of animals worldwide. ROWAN MANTELL reports
Sixty years ago a little boy in King's Lynn bought a boa constrictor. It was the beginning of a life-long fascination with exotic animals and this summer Ken Sims became one of just 25 people worldwide, ever to be made an honorary fellow of the Zoological Society of London.
'I thought they were pulling my leg!' said Ken, who has run Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens, near Yarmouth, for 35 years.
Ken is in distinguished company. Fellow fellows include David Attenborough, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Emperor of Japan.
It was David Attenborough who originally sparked Ken's interest in wildlife and conservation. As a boy Ken watched the great broadcaster and dreamed of travelling abroad to see the animals and habitats for himself.
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When a local Lynn fishmonger began keeping tropical fish, and then reptiles, Ken offered to help out – and eventually learnt enough to buy his own snake.
Today he is in charge of more than 70 species of animals ranging from crocodiles and tigers to cockatoos and gibbons.
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His journey from first pet to international recognition for his work in animal conservation, took him from King's Lynn to Malaysia and included work farming snakes for their venom and diverting exotic animals destined for dinner, to European zoos. Ken's first plan to travel abroad was thwarted when National Service was stopped as he reached 18. 'I hoped it would get me to foreign parts!' he said.
Instead he found work as a lab assistant in London and spent the entire two years desperate to escape.
Scouring business directories he discovered companies were hiring workers on rubber plantations in Malaya – and signed up.
When he next returned to Britain, four-and-a-half years later, he had company.
Finding snakes and crocodiles on sale, for food, he made contact with zoos across Europe.
'Zoos were under populated and they were grateful for them,' said Ken. He began working with Malayan zoos too and in 1969 his new orang-utan enclosure for Kuala Lumpur zoo was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh.
'After the business of opening the Duke walked past the ranks of VIPs to the back rows - and went straight to my parents, who had come to visit for the occasion,' said Ken. 'He asked 'Where are you from,' and when they replied Dersingham he said he hadn't come all this way to speak to neighbours from Norfolk!'
Today Ken ranks alongside Prince Philip as an honorary fellow of the Zoological Society of London.
'I'm still pinching myself!' he said. 'It's extremely flattering. And to be honoured for doing something that I have enjoyed so much over the years is quite incredible and unexpected.
'Of the 25 people who have been made fellows, probably 20 are hugely distinguished academics and scientists. One or two are there by accident of birth and there is only one other full time zoo person, and he runs the enormous New York Zoo.'
Ken's encounter with David Attenborough came even earlier. 'I have been in his company many times but I have only spoken to him once and that was in 1959,' he said. 'A girl I knew happened to be working at the BBC and she gave me his private number.' Ken called to ask how he could get into a career working with exotic animals.
'He was charming and couldn't have been more helpful but he told me exactly what I didn't want to hear, that I should go to university to study,' said Ken.
Today, Ken said the most difficult aspect of his job is having to turn away young people wanting to work at Thrigby. 'Every year there must be hundreds of young people who ask for work, and I have to say no, there are no vacancies.'
Ken stayed in Malaya for 12 years, mainly managing rubber plantations but also keeping poisonous snakes and milking their venom to use for anti-venoms and other medical treatments.
As he realised that habitat and species were disappearing he became convinced that zoos held the key to saving animals and returned to Norfolk, determined to create a little piece of Asia.
'To walk into actual rainforest is like walking into a cathedral, it's so awe-inspiring,' he said. 'When I arrived in Malaya there was 35 miles of unbroken jungle between myself and the sea. When I left it was fragmented and broken up.'
Even in Malaya he saw vey few really wild animals.
'I never saw an elephant, I never saw a leopard, I never saw a rhino. I knew they were there and once I so nearly saw elephants. I followed a group of hornbill birds up a track on my motorbike, I turned the bike off and sat and watched them for and while and then turned the bike round and there were fresh elephant footsteps right behind me.'
At Thrigby he sees some of the world's rarest animals every day, but while he is deeply proud of what he has created in Norfolk, he is just as committed to conservation work thousands of miles away.
Admission money from Thrigby helps not just the animals in the large, leafy enclosures here, but also their counterparts in the wild.
A third of the zoo's visitors come in August and every one of them is contributing to the survival of species and habitat in countries including Vietnam, Fiji, Nepal and India, through the Thrigby Conservation Fund.
Thrigby also cooperates with zoos around the world in very successful breeding programmes. Baby animals are not only popular with visitors, they are also internationally important for species facing extinction.
So does he have any qualms about keeping magnificent wild animals in cages?
'All the time,' said Ken. 'But zoos make a real contribution to helping species survive.'
Thirteen tigers have been born at Thrigby but in their native Sumatra Ken fears they could be extinct within a generation.
Tens of thousands of children see animals at Thrigby that they have previously only encountered in story books.
When he began creating his wildlife gardens his first stock came from zoos he had been working with for years. Two of his crocodiles, (and at least one member of staff,) have been with him from the very beginning.
'Crocodiles have always been a particular interest of mine. They are magnificent creatures, at the top of the food chain and essentially unchanged for millions of years because they are so successful,' he said.
Ken is under no illusion that his crocs repay the love. 'They just know the rattle of a food bucket!' he laughed.
He and his wife brought up their two daughters at Thrigby but despite being raised with crocodiles and tigers, clouded leopards and red pandas,surrounding their home, neither inherited his fascination with exotic animals.
At 73 his thoughts have turned to retirement. This year he sold Amazona, the zoo he founded in Cromer six years ago, to the site's landlord.
'I think of retiring, often, but I haven't got around to it. I have a lovely way of life,' he said.
Ken and his wife live on the top floor of the 18th century house, at the heart of zoo. Thrigby Hall itself was designed by the architect of Norwich's Assembly House, and is now surrounded by exotic wildlife gardens and the huge, verdant enclosures Ken and his team have created for their exotic tenants.
Thirty five years on and honoured alongside some of the greatest names in animal conservation history, Ken still has more dreams for Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens.
He would love to see the snow leopards breed, but he also loves the many existing Thrigby families, from the siamang gibbons with their extraordinary dueting call to the many human visitors who make possible this little piece of Asia, rooted in Norfolk but part of an international network of conservation projects.