Small is profitable, says zoo: Drusillas has a lot more to offer than animals in cages. Janet Robson reports

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The Independent Online
DRUSILLAS Park, shoe-horned into four acres of East Sussex countryside, proclaims itself the best small zoo in the country. Some more traditional members of the zoological fraternity mutter that Drusillas should not be allowed to call itself a zoo at all. But however you define it, Drusillas is successful.

With 260,000 visitors a year, Drusillas' turnover is approaching pounds 2m and profits, according to its owner, Michael Ann, are 'very respectable and up on last year'.

Adults visiting Drusillas find it very different from the zoos of their childhood. There are no lions or polar bears, no iron-barred cages and very little wire mesh or concrete. Instead plenty of small creatures - monkeys, beavers, penguins, owls - can be viewed through large glass windows.

Although Drusillas has a modern approach, it is more than 60 years old. It was established as a tea-room by Mr Ann's father, and for the last 35 years it has been owned and run by Mr Ann and his wife Kitty.

Running a profitable zoo is not easy, as the troubles of London Zoo demonstrate. Much of Drusillas' commercial success is due to the fact that the Anns have developed a sound business strategy and stuck to it. Too small to be all things to all men, Drusillas is targeted one market, families with young children.

Though the Anns are no Thatcherite entrepreneurs, they have stuck to the 'good housekeeping' philosophy beloved of Mrs Thatcher. They do not spend money they have not got. All new developments at Drusillas are financed by cash flow from the business - the Anns have never borrowed. Ingenious at keeping costs down, Mr Ann is adept at using donated, scrounged or second-hand items.

One of Drusillas' most imaginative exhibits is 'Meerkat Mound'. Devised with the help of local children, the centrepiece is a glass dome reached by a tunnel, enabling visitors to pop up in the middle of the enclosure and get close to the animals. The dome was donated to the zoo, and the tunnel is made of left-over tubes from a water-slide firm.

Drusillas does a lot of recycling, which is both ideologically and commercially sound. Straw and woodshavings cleaned out from the animal houses are used to fire the boiler that provides all Drusillas' hot water. Work is almost complete on installing a water filtration plant that will enable thousands of gallons to be recycled.

Many large zoos were founded and are still run by zoological societies. Mrs Ann is in no doubt that, particularly in a small business, three's a crowd. 'If we had to get everything agreed by a committee, nothing would ever get done,' she said. Although two other members of the Ann family share ownership of Drusillas, they are sleeping partners.

The Anns' success lies in the way they have combined the traditional educational aims of zoos with the commercial demands of the leisure industry. What Drusillas proves is that zoos can still have a place in the world if they adopt a broader approach. 'It's no good saying to people, 'we have to save this woolly monkey', unless you do something to preserve the monkey's natural environment,' Mrs Ann said.

They believe the academic future for zoos is in relating learning about animals to learning about people and their effect on the planet. Drusillas is a big fund-raiser for a charity that preserves rainforests in Belize.

None of this will make a zoo profitable unless it provides entertainment. 'Drusillas is above all a fun day out,' said Mr Ann. There are signs on the exhibits, but they have few words on them. More often there are flaps to lift or drawers to pull out.

Mr Ann said that although conservation and captive breeding were admirable activities for a zoo (Drusillas has been successful in breeding some rare species), publicising them was not the way to attract customers.

He has recently been appointed chairman of the South East England Tourist Board. With Euro Disneyland looming on the other side of the Channel this is a crucial time. 'When the Channel tunnel opens, Euro Disney will be a disaster for this area, and we have to do something about it.'

Mr Ann believes it is essential that the 1,200 commercial members of the board act together to promote and manage tourism in the region, campaigning for good road and rail links and offering high quality facilities.

These are certainly principles that the Anns have put into practice at Drusillas. Last year the zoo restaurant was awarded Egon Ronay-Heinz Family Restaurant of the Year, and Drusillas was the English Tourist Board's inaugural winner of the Family Welcome of the Year award.

Service to the customer is paramount in the management of Drusillas. During the season, the zoo has a staff of 80. 'I can't stand to see people having to queue,' Mr Ann explained.

In the summer, Drusillas can have 4,000 visitors a day. More than this and the park becomes overcrowded.

One way to improve the takings is to increase the number of visitors out of season. 'You must keep giving people something new,' said Mr Ann. Although the animals hardly ever change, their enclosures are constantly being redeveloped.

Mr Ann is especially proud of 'The World of Owls', where barn owls peer down from the rafters of a barn, tawny owls inhabit a copse and snowy owls hide among pine trees beside a stream.

This exhibit would no doubt receive the approval of any zoological society, but some of Drusillas' other attractions would not. The purists would probably purse their lips at the adventure playground, the Christmas train ride to visit Santa and the children's birthday parties whose highlight is the chance to feed the penguins.

Mr Ann has tried to interest other zoos in sharing some of these special events but has been disappointed with their response. However, the Anns believe that zoos are changing and must do so if they are to survive in a commercial world.

(Photograph omitted)

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