When the Hunter Valley Zoo first opened in 2006, owner Jason Pearson said it was little more than a “run-down deer park”. But this weekend the zoo will celebrate its 10th birthday with a collection that Noah would envy.
African lions, a Malayan Tapir, antelope, primates, birds and its famous meerkat mob represent just a fraction of the zoos population.
“My previous business was actually supplying the deer park,” Mr Pearson said.
“There were some monkeys, some koalas, some birds – but not much else.”
The then owner was looking to move on and Mr Pearson put his hand up to take over.
“The [licensing] departments were deciding if they should give it a new lease on life or give it the chop,” he said.
It took two years but Mr Pearson got the go-ahead and began building the zoo himself.
A decade later and the ever-expanding zoo is almost unrecognisable.
“It’s a funny beast,” he said.
“It’s beyond what I pictured.”
Mr Pearson said the jewel in the crown was when he moved a pride of lions into the zoo last year.
A milestone for any private zoo.
“I never thought I’d have lions,” he said.
“I was told by another zoo owner to aim for the sky and here we are.”
Over the next year they plan to expand again.
“We’ve got another six species on the go,” Mr Pearson said.
Black and white ruffed lemurs, fairy penguins and another pride of lions are among the next line-up to make their home in the Hunter.
The Hunter Valley Zoo is known for the fact that guests can get up-close and personal with its residents. That’s because the big picture, Mr Pearson said, was to be more than just a zoo.
“When I was a kid I was always going outside, but now there’s so much to compete with when it comes to games, social media,” he said.
“I want kids to come here and feed the roos, walk in the enclosures, hear and smell everything their senses miss out on online.
“We’re trying to inspire the next generation of conservationists.”
On Sunday, from 9am, the zoo will host a community get-together to thank supporters and staff.
Most people might expect the sausage sizzle and jumping castle for the kids but the big draw card will be when keepers throw a carcass to the lions and invite the public to peek behind the scenes.
“We’ll open the back of the lions den to the public,” he said.
“It’s where all the nitty-gritty of caring for lions takes place.”