Monday 27 March 2017

Snakes and ladders: the career slope of a builder turned zoo owner

James Hennessy, director of The National Reptile Zoo in Gowran, Co Kilkenny, pictured with Rascal the python
James Hennessy, director of The National Reptile Zoo in Gowran, Co Kilkenny, pictured with Rascal the python
Sarah McCabe

Sarah McCabe

Dad-of-three James Hennessy (39) is founder and director of the National Reptile Zoo in Gowran, Co Kilkenny. The private zoo hosts 30,000 visitors a year and generates turnover of €250,000.

"The National Reptile Zoo is home to 200 animals and 50 different species including alligators, six foot long Monitor lizards, rattle snakes, cobras and poison dart frogs.

I have always loved animals, particularly exotic animals. We kept them all through my childhood. But I didn't always work with them. My background is a mix of adventure sports - kayaking, mountaineering and climbing - and building. I ran a small construction company before the recession hit.

The National Reptile Zoo was almost accidental, a result of my passion for conservation. In the years before we opened in 2006 I travelled a lot, working on different conservation projects abroad, everything from crocodiles in Africa to anacondas in Venezuala. I was bringing my work home, building up a big collection of reptiles in Kilkenny that people were always dying to see. I realised I had a business opportunity on my hands.

I began by leasing out an old farm shed 10 miles down the road from home, around 2000 square metres. My background in building meant I could build the animal enclosures myself.

Slowly but surely, things gathered pace. By 2009 there was enough demand to expand into a second unit at the front of the site. We have since expanded even further and are now at 6,000 square feet. Even during the recession our numbers grew every year.

It is a very seasonal business with a lot more traffic in the summer. We have three full-time staff on site year-round but that number jumps to 12 in the summer. We have a mobile zoo which travels around the country visiting schools and groups, which has another two employees. We also regularly host interns though we are much better known internationally for our intern programme than here in Ireland. There are three Dutch interns and two coming over from France next week. I'd like to get more Irish students in.

Getting our name out there has been the biggest challenge. For a long time people didn't understand what we did, we had families wandering in wonder if we were running a pet shop.

Part of the problem was our old name, Reptile Village, which just didn't work. We recently rebranded. Getting the right name is really important. The National Reptile Zoo name reflects the fact that we are licensed as a zoo by the Department of the Environment, just the same as Dublin Zoo.

Finding staff has been tricky too. Our employees have to be willing to work with dangerous animals and also be really good with people, which are quite conflicting skills! A lot of people who like animals are very introverted.

The business has been profitable from around year three. It started off very lean; I used the money left over from my building company to keep it going. Now it's great to have cash to reinvest in the zoo. I have only had to take out one loan for one of the extensions, from Bank of Ireland, who were great. I am thinking of opening a second zoo in Cork so that may require financing next. Energy is our single biggest expense because reptiles need so much heat to survive.

I still do a lot of conservation work. This year I will travel to Guatemala to help survey a vulnerable part of the rainforest and to India to collect venom from snakes, in order to develop better antivenoms for local tribes.

I also help arrange volunteers for conservation projects and teach students on zoology, wildlife and veterinary course about reptiles."

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