As a small child, Lucy Costello loved nothing better than ‘rescuing’ animal waifs and strays, a mission that quickly matured into a fascination for conservation and rewilding. As CEO at Berkshire’s Beale Wildlife Park, she today remains as passionate as ever about a cause that gives her ultimate responsibility for no fewer than 160 species in 350 acres of glorious riverside parkland.
Lucy’s route to her current role began with a veterinary nursing qualification before moving on to university to study for a degree in zoology. She went on via practice work to become Head Veterinary Nurse of the Equine and Large Animal Hospital at the Royal Veterinary College at Potters Bar, which provided valuable managerial and business experience in an animal environment. Her commercial expertise was further honed as regional manager for a large corporate veterinary group in London.
A career break for two children followed, during which Lucy piled in with her husband on the launch of a digital communications business. Lucy’s role as Operations Director involved her with big name clients in the construction sector in particular. She always knew, however, that one day she would return to an animal environment, and the opportunity at Beale to tie in education and conservation was a rare one.
“David Attenborough once famously said that ‘no one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced’ – and that is very much our role at Beale,” says Lucy. “I want our visitors not just to enjoy the animals but to understand the issues and crises that go with them.”
“The children who come to our Zoo Club, for example, can appreciate that lemurs face huge habitat and food loss in their natural environments. Conservation is the end goal but education is the vehicle through which we can get there – they are indelibly linked.”
With a well-equipped education centre, a programme of school visits and a wide range of colourful fact-filled interpretation boards, Beale undoubtedly takes its mission with children very seriously. Even on the darkest of days in mid-winter you will find a member of the animal care team surrounded by small ‘Toddler Group’ children as he or she gives them a rare chance to get up close with a snake or an armadillo.
The sheer diversity of Beale’s animals represents a remarkable transformation from what was just a few years ago known locally as ‘the Peacock Farm’. Today, you will still see peacocks as introduced by Gilbert Beale from 1956 when he set out on the charitable journey of opening his Thameside estate to the public. But now the noisy beauties are just a small element of a fabulous zoological collection that ranges from lynx to dwarf crocodiles and from zebras to guanacos.
The park opens seven days a week right through the year and its rapidly rising visitor figures are testimony to its popularity over a wide area. They have climbed considerably from 2020 and are now recovering nicely from the huge impact of the pandemic.
Lucy still shudders at the memory. “Things were really desperate for us because, while we were able to furlough a lot of staff, we obviously had to sustain all those who were essential to animal care and that wasn’t easy financially. What truly amazed us was the extent of the support we received from our community – we had locals dropping off whole crates of fruit and vegetables, and we had a big response to a crowdfunder to pay for food.
“When we re-opened under restrictions in April 2021, we had a record number of visitors – it was brilliant to see all those happy faces and children running around the place again. Even the animals were happier because they had missed the stimulation they get from our visitors.” As the 2022 season unfolds, there is still a holdover on the maintenance side, but work is progressing quickly on getting Beale back to it best.
Getting through the pandemic owes much to the team at Beale, which Lucy heralds as ‘truly amazing’. “Everyone is passionate about what they do and it goes right the way through from the zookeepers to apprentices and the train drivers. We are also hugely fortunate to have volunteers who make so much happen that would otherwise be impossible.”
Of all the excitements on Beale’s current agenda, there is little better than the prospect provided by a female lynx joining the lone (now matured) male. Lucy talks with enthusiasm about the prospect of a breeding programme that could, a little further down the line, lead to kittens being added to the depleted natural population in their native Carpathian Mountains.
“To be onboard with various European breeding programmes is a great step for us,” says Lucy. “Membership of BIAZA (the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) is a big plus and demonstrates our commitment to the wider conservation agenda that you may not fully appreciate when you visit.”
Beale’s vision for the future is that its much loved park with model railway running through shouldn’t change too much, though new investment will facilitate a general refreshment of facilities. Meanwhile, the animal collection will undoubtedly expand and it is entirely possible that you could see, say, a snow leopard in the not too distant future.
It’s no more than a dream at the moment but Lucy’s ambitions do include some potential star attractions. “I am a fan of big carnivores like tigers, bears and wolves so maybe we could rescue a bear from Asia or an ex-circus cat in need of a new home. We have the space so who knows. I would be very keen to achieve that in my time here.”
While proud to be a woman leader in the zoo industry, Lucy insists that she has seen no gender-based barrier to her progress. “As with all working Mums, my entire life is a juggling act,” she says. “It’s a choice you make and it has pros and cons but I wouldn’t change it for a moment.”