It is lucky 13 tomorrow for the Radnidge family as it celebrates 13 years of running Symbio Wildlife Park on October 13.
In their hands, Symbio has become a nationally recognised family-run zoo renowned in the industry for its animal conservation efforts.
After purchasing Symbio with bridging finance while he tried to sell his house, managing director John Radnidge remembers the first five months cleaning up the park and establishing a new brand, only to be confronted by a severe bushfire during Christmas 2001.
It came within metres of razing the park.
‘‘The word in the industry in 2000 was that we wouldn’t make it,’’ Mr Radnidge said.
But the commitment, passion and energy of a family with a common purpose prevailed and the Radnidges set about building a whole new zoo, one exhibit at a time.
Now the business is expanding by 20 per cent a year. The first major investment was a freshwater crocodile enclosure in 2004-05 that was voted by the Australasian Society of Zookeepers as best new exhibit.
Symbio repeated that achievement in 2010 when the zoo industry voted the new tiger exhibit as the best.
Development has not stopped and by this summer Symbio will have a new reptile house with 23 new exhibits and a new koala breeding sanctuary.
‘‘We are going through our biggest phase of growth now,’’ Mr Radnidge said.
‘‘This is stage three. It is the biggest investment ever undertaken in the history of the park.’’
For Symbio to grow the way it had, it relied on visitors and the community, he said.
It was the public that helped it overcome adversity such as fires, the theft of eight tiny monkeys in 2010, SARS, the bird flu crisis, and attempts to put a paintball operation next door.
Mr Radnidge recalled when members of the Wollongong community even signed a petition and held a Save Our Symbio rally.
‘‘The community owns this park, not us,’’ he said.
‘‘The outpouring of support and grief when the monkeys were stolen was just phenomenal. Those incidents have really proven to me that we are caretakers of the animals and undertake this incredible responsibility for the community.
‘‘That is why it is a really special place for us. My life has been enriched for the 13 years we have spent here.
‘‘What we do is try and create a reason for people to come back and see some of the world’s most endangered wildlife.
‘‘We made the conscious decision in 2005-06, when we introduced the meerkats as our first exotic species, that we really wanted to be a contributor to the wildlife of the world and the zoological industry’’ Mr Radnidge said.
‘‘We don’t compete with other zoos, we collaborate and work with them to save endangered wildlife.’’
Symbio does it so well that Richmond TAFE and Cessnock TAFE bring their students to learn how to run a zoo from the Helensburgh family members who each contribute unique skills, developed over 13 years.
‘‘Matt is a genius the way he is able to plan and build new exhibits,’’ Mr Radnidge said.
‘‘And Mike is equally good. He was working here before we bought it.’’
Mr Radnidge’s wife, Margaret, also worked at Symbio before they bought it.
Daughter Michelle also works in the business and other daughter Melissa might soon.
‘‘It is a job where we get an opportunity to share so much with so many people from all walks of life,’’ Mr Radnidge said. ‘‘It is a privilege and an honour that we take very seriously.’’