When I arrived to interview Russell Catlow, I had no idea what surprises were in store. Blackpool Zoo celebrated its 45th Anniversary in 2017 and Russell has been employed there for most of those years. It certainly wasn’t what he had planned, having trained as a teacher at Padgate College, Warrington. The year he qualified, teaching jobs were short in supply and as his brother was a keeper at the zoo, Russell applied and was soon working with camels, giraffes and rhinos.
During the summer season, Russell worked on the promenade hiring deckchairs out and later became the manager. At that time, both the zoo and deckchair hire were operated by Blackpool Council. In 1993, Russell was asked to return to the zoo as Assistant Manager - he spent the next three years working both jobs!
In 2003 the zoo became privately owned, initially by Grant Leisure and four years later by Parques Reunidos, a spanish company. They own over eighty other zoos, safari parks, water parks and leisure outlets worldwide. The company have invested heavily in development and expansion of the zoo and its facilities and the range of animals. Russell became Assistant Director ten years ago.
As we chatted, it emerged that Russell’s parents had met on the site the zoo is situated, which was formerly Blackpool’s first municipal airport. During World War ll the RAF had taken over the airport and Wellington bombers were repaired on the site. Russell’s father drove the huge transporters which carried the planes and his mother was a panel beater and also ferried pilots to the Samlesbury base. His father later drove coaches locally.
The family connection doesn’t end there. I was fascinated to hear that Russell’s great grandfather was the chauffeur to Sir John Bickerstaffe of Blackpool Tower fame. Photographs he showed me include one of his great grandfather standing by Bickerstaffe family cars outside their home ‘Highlawns’ which was on Hornby Road, Blackpool. Another family connection to Blackpool Tower is that three of Russell’s uncles worked there. Back then, health and safety was virtually non-existent and a photograph of his electrician uncle shows this all too clearly.
Although Russell took early retirement four years ago, the lure of the zoo was too tempting and he now works as Duty Manager at weekends. He sees continuing success of the zoo down to good planning, investment and great staff. There are around 38 keepers and in the season there can be up to 150 part-time staff. Russell stressed that a high standard of animal welfare is essential and breeding programmes are an important part of life at the zoo. Education is also central to what the zoo provides and courses are available in a variety of areas. The number of Education Officers increases from 8 to 17 during the season. Conservation and research also play prominent roles in today’s modern approach to what zoos are about.
Things have come a long way since that wet July in 1972 when Johnny Morris of TV’s ‘Animal Magic’ fame, officially opened the zoo riding an elephant. The summer of 2017 saw the opening of a purpose-built £2.5 million elephant house and Russell showed me the recently completed themed catering outlet.
With his boundless enthusiasm I think it will be a while before we find Russell reclining for any length of time in a deckchair.