Jaine Blackman meets crocodile fan and conservationist Shaun Foggett who has followed a dream and built his own zoo

I’ve always had a fascination with crocodiles, ever since I was a little boy,” says Shaun Foggett.

But while many of us may have grown up with an interest in natural history, few have taken it as far as Shaun, 35, of Witney.

After keeping reptiles in his teens, he bought his first crocodile when he was 20 and three years ago sold his family home to finance his own zoo.

Crocodiles of the World at Brize Norton is the only zoo for crocodilians (the word to group all species, including alligators, together) in the UK and Shaun now spends his working day surrounded by more than 120 of them.

“I think it was the fear,” says Shaun, trying to pinpoint just what it was that got him hooked in the first place, remembering shouting at the TV screen as crocodiles waited for wildebeest and zebras at watering-holes on David Attenborough documentaries.

“I was fascinated how they couldn’t see them waiting under the water.”

Fear – or at least a healthy wariness – still plays a part.

“It’s an animal to study, it’s not a pet. You don’t interact with these,” says self-taught expert Shaun. “Well, you can but then you go to hospital!”

And Shaun knows what he’s talking about from painful experience: he suffered a fractured knuckle and had a nerve severed in his leg when he was clipped by an animal he was working with in 2011.

It wasn’t a full attack “or I would probably have lost an arm or leg” but it was a “reminder to give 100 per cent attention”.

And it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm in the slightest.

He studied how to look after and keep crocodiles for two years before gaining a dangerous wild animal licence and buying his first animal – a cuvier dwarf caiman – which he kept in an enclosure in his front room.

Stationary for much of the day, in the evenings and at night the caiman (“she doesn’t have a name but I’ve still got her”) came to life. “I didn’t need a TV any more,” says Shaun, who is married to hair salon owner Lisa and has four children Billy, 10 and Louie, eight, and Shania, five and Blyss, 18 months.

“I was just in awe of it. I’ve never been much of a reader but it pushed me to learn more and more about them.”

Shaun left Henry Box School in Witney at 15 and trained as a carpenter and joiner, a job he has always enjoyed and he’s put to good use building enclosures.

His study of crocodiles might just have stayed as a hobby but 10 years ago he was diagnosed with a life-threatening and rare blood disease, aplastic anemia.

His collection of creatures had grown but because his immune system was hit he was forced to give up all but a python and his original caiman. “It would have killed me to get rid of her,” he says.

Shaun was very ill for 10 months undergoing chemical therapy.

“I had a lot of time to think what I wanted to do with my life... and that was work with crocodiles,” he says.

With no specific zoos in the UK or training schemes for working with crocodiles in Europe, the idea of starting his own was planted.

He started studying some more and collecting more species, eventually building two conservatories to keep more than 20 of them in the garden of his three-bedroom house in Deer Park, Witney.

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In 2010 he began in earnest to find funds and somewhere to build his zoo. It wasn’t an easy path and to raise funds he sold their home and his family moved in with his brother Chris.

“Everyone supported it fully,” says Shaun, talking about the backing he got from family and friends. He did the work on a shoestring, building the zoo himself with the help of his supporters.

“It was peanuts really but I spent everything I had. I just knew if I opened it, it would work.

“Lisa has her own business [Kontempo in Hailey, Witney] so she understands the drive and passion to do something you love.”

After writing to 45 landowners with little success, Shaun finally got premises at Crawley Mill, Witney, but was only allowed to open to the public on Sundays (and later Saturdays too).

Due to the restrictions and increasing visitor numbers, Shaun kept looking for new premises and moved to Burford Road in Brize Norton in February this year.

Since then it has been open seven days a week and has been awarded charity status. He’s just about to employ an education officer and already has plans for more expansion.

Shaun is passionate about conservation. He wants to stimulate public awareness about crocodilians and have a real impact on international conservation.

All the animals in the zoo – which are fed on a diet of rodents, fish, chicken and red meat – have been bred in captivity and this year Shaun successfully bred eight critically endangered Siamese crocodiles, boosting the global population of the species by almost two per cent.

It is hoped they can be used to set up a breeding programme in Cambodia, home to the wild population of 500 which it is feared may be cut in half when a new dam opens.

Shaun has certainly come a long way since he watched those David Attenborough programmes, including featuring in a one-off documentary on the Discovery Channel and a Channel Five mini-series himself, but he still has great regard for his natural history “hero”.

“He is the guy I would love to meet and show him around [the zoo],” says Shaun. “He has probably seen most of these in the wild.”

For more details about Crocodiles of the World see crocodilesoftheworld.co.uk or call 01993 846353


Win one of two family tickets to Crocodiles of the World (worth £27 each) in our easy to enter competition — or one of five runners-up prizes of the zoo’s official 2015 calendar.

Just tell us: what kind of crocodiles were bred at the zoo this year?

Send your answer, with your name, address and daytime contact telephone number, to Jaine Blackman, Features, Oxford Mail, Osney Mead, Oxford OX2 0EJ by Friday December 19, 2014. Or email your answer and details to jaine.blackman@nqo.com

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