Pictures: A look back at the origin story of Fota Wildlife Park 

Pictures: A look back at the origin story of Fota Wildlife Park 
A youngster takes in the view on opening day.

The black and white ruffled lemur (Varecia variegata) is native to the tropical forests of Eastern Madagascar and has been classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to hunting and habitat loss and fragmentation.

The baby lemurs were born to mother Cloud who is 18 years old and father Paraic, an eight-year-old who was also born in Fota Wildlife Park.

Observing the ostriches, Fota Wildlife Park, 2000. 
Observing the ostriches, Fota Wildlife Park, 2000. 

Given the news, we decided to look back at the origin story of one of Cork's most popular attractions. 

Fota Island was the private home of the Smith-Barry family for nearly 800 years until the estate was sold to UCC in 1975, following the death of Mrs Dorothy Elizabeth Bell, the last of the Smith-Barrys.

A couple of years later, the seeds of Fota Wildlife Park were sown when the late Dr Terry Murphy, the then Director of Dublin Zoo, proposed that a Wildlife Park be established in Ireland.

Professor Tom Raftery, formerly of UCC, suggested that the Park could be located at Fota. 

Visitors on board the so-called 'gravy train' at Fota in 1999. Picture: Maurice O'Mahony. 
Visitors on board the so-called 'gravy train' at Fota in 1999. Picture: Maurice O'Mahony. 

A proposal to establish a Wildlife Park on 70 acres of land on Fota Island - to be provided without cost but under licence from UCC - received unanimous support from UCC’s governing body and was then formally agreed to by the Zoological Society’s Council in December 1979. 

All monies were raised by public subscription driven by fundraising committees in Cork and Dublin and the funds paid for the entire project, apart from a Bord Fáilte grant that covered the perimeter fence.

By May 1 1982, an Echo article detailed that construction work was "well underway on the first building — a house for giraffe and zebra and an office/information centre". 

Clearance work and landscaping were continuing and animals were on order from several zoos in the UK and Europe.

Fota received its three millionth visitor in 1999. She was little Aoife Delaney from Bishopstown with her grandmother Paula. Pictured l-r: Dr Neil Stronach, then Director of the Park, Aoife and her grandmother, Julia Crowley, then Sales and Marketing Manager at Jurys and Prof Tom Raftery of the Steering Committee. Picture: Provision.
Fota received its three millionth visitor in 1999. She was little Aoife Delaney from Bishopstown with her grandmother Paula. Pictured l-r: Dr Neil Stronach, then Director of the Park, Aoife and her grandmother, Julia Crowley, then Sales and Marketing Manager at Jurys and Prof Tom Raftery of the Steering Committee. Picture: Provision.

In June of that year, the first animals started to arrive.

"The first of the animals, giraffes, for the Fota Wildlife Park in Cork have arrived at Bristol Zoo, where they will be quarantined until later this summer.

"A consignment of monkeys is also on the way to Bristol, while cheetahs and leopards are already in quarantine in Dublin zoo," an Echo article from June 4 states. 

"Work in the park is proceeding apace. 

"The administration office and coffee bar have been completed, as has the giraffe house and monkey island. 

Ethel Carey feeds a tapir at Fota Wildlife Park in December 2004. Picture: Larry Cummins
Ethel Carey feeds a tapir at Fota Wildlife Park in December 2004. Picture: Larry Cummins

"The erection of the cheetah house is in progress," the article continued. 

In April 1983, the first batch of Chilean flamingoes arrived into the Park ahead of its imminent opening.

Stringent but necessary disease control regulations in Ireland contributed to the escalating costs of stocking Fota Wildlife Park, as an Echo article from May 24, 1983, pointed to:

"An example of the cost implications of the disease regulations is that the Park was offered a sizeable number of flamingos some time back from a South American agency at around £50 a head but had to turn them down because of the regulations. 

Tony O'Dwyer, Operations Manager of Fota Wildlife Park, playing with Zulu and Impie two of the three baby Cheetahs who were born in October 2003. Picture: Dan Linehan
Tony O'Dwyer, Operations Manager of Fota Wildlife Park, playing with Zulu and Impie two of the three baby Cheetahs who were born in October 2003. Picture: Dan Linehan

"Instead, they had to purchase the birds through an agent in Britain who has complied with the necessary disease regulations. The cost — £300 a bird," the piece stated. 

However, in June 1983 the Park was eventually opened by the then President of Ireland, Dr Patrick Hillery.

The Park has expanded since and is constantly building new habitats.

Due to Covid-19, Fota Wildlife Park is now operating a pre-booking online system to help comply with social distancing requirements.

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