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A Four Generational Business with the Stone Family at Billabong Zoo

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

✦ For four generations, the Stone family has dedicated themselves to the care and conservation of animals.


Billabong Zoo family owners Brooke, Danena, Mark and Blake | Brilliant-Online
Not many families own a zoo and for four generations! Blake, Mark, Danena and Brooke have.

"We just bought a zoo." Not quite what you'd expect your parents to come home proclaiming on an ordinary day.


The Stone Family has an extraordinary life, and it began precisely with buying a zoo!


Those who have seen the movie We Bought a Zoo can see the movie in real life with the Stone Family and the beloved Billabong Zoo. The movie is based on the experiences of Benjamin Mee (played by Matt Damon in the movie), and Mark Stone actually spent time with him and both were able to exchange notes and agree that sometimes life throws you something quite crazy and unexpected!


We get up close and curious with the Stone family and find out more about their experiences with the brilliant Billabong Zoo.


A milestone 20 years has been reached by the Stone Family at Billabong Zoo
Celebrating 20 years as the custodians of Billabong Zoo: Brooke, Danena, Mark, Blake and three year old Thea.

How Billabong Zoo started


In 2003, the Stone Family acquired Billabong Zoo in Port Macquarie. Since then, the zoo has experienced a significant increase in visitors and a growing demand for annual passes from both locals and residents of New South Wales.



Running a zoo is no easy task, despite the appeal of spending time with adorable animals. It requires substantial resources, with the cost of constructing a new enclosure reaching up to a quarter of a million dollars. Additionally, importing exotic breeds like Misty and Milo, the South African lion cubs, can come at a hefty price.


However, these expenses are necessary investments as new animals attract a steady stream of revenue from enthusiastic crowds. The introduction of snow leopards in 2008 was a pivotal moment for Billabong Zoo, as it became one of the few zoos in Australia to house these magnificent creatures.


Today, Billabong Zoo spans across a 10-acre property and is home to over 200 animals from 80 different species. You can explore the diverse range of animals at Billabong Zoo here.

With 45 years of experience each in the zoo industry, Danena and Mark possess a deep passion for the welfare and care of the animals. They inherited this passion from their parents, and have passed it on to their children, ensuring a legacy of dedication to the zoo's inhabitants.


Zoo business runs in the family


Animal lovers reading this are probably already romanticising, how lovely it must be to grow up in a family that actually owns a zoo and get to have these amazing animals as your best friends in your childhood.


Danena and Mark's two children, Blake and Brooke would understand this well. In fact, they are ready to take on the business when their parents retire. So for fans of Billabong Zoo, rest assured the zoo will be passed on to Blake and Brooke who know very well what running a zoo is all about.


2nd Generation zoo keepers at Billabong Zoo | Brilliant Online
Blake and Brooke ready to take on the zoo business

As the zoo grew, the Stone family took on more staff to maintain the structures, feed and care for the animals and look after the visitors e.g. during school groups and private tours.


Mark Stone's family has been in this industry for four generations and he has seen how much the industry has changed (for the better) over the years.


Blake, Mark and Brooke with zoo animals | Brilliant Online
Best Job in the World!
“Gone are the days of keeping animals in captivity purely for entertainment. Now it’s all about us being able to educate people on the plight of the animals through conservation education.”

Billabong Zoo has come a long way and they have even won the Excellence in Tourism at the 2022 Wauchope & Hinterland Business Awards!


A voice for the koalas

Koala lovers would want to know this - Mark was the one who led the push to ban koala holding in NSW!

What visitors and tourists may not be aware is that koalas don't really enjoy being hugged by strangers. It is a traumatising experience for them. While it may be that other zoos gain more than a million dollars a year by having koala cuddling photo services, Mark has put the koalas' welfare first.


The loss of income does not hurt, because what Billabong Zoo gains as a result of this ban is a bunch of happy koalas who are breeding well. That is not an easy feat to accomplish and they are even able to supply other places with koalas. It is clear that conservation is at the heart of the business.


2nd and 3rd generation Stone Family with Koala  | Brilliant Online
Family takes on a whole different meaning at Billabong Zoo.

Koala breeding programme

Did you know that Billabong Zoo is regarded as a world-renowned koala breeding facility? Thanks to the Stone family, Billabong Zoo is providing genetically strong, health and new bloodlines of koalas to other zoos and sanctuaries throughout Australia.

Before Mark bought Billabong Zoo, he was working for his parents who owned and operated their own wildlife park in Nowra NSW. It was there that he received his first koalas from another wildlife sanctuary. His fascination and love for these cuddly creatures has grown since then, and it has become his mission to ensure these animals are given the care and respect needed for them to grow.


It has not been easy for Mark learning about breeding koalas as there was so little reliable information readily available in the early days. His commitment to learning has paid off and especially now with how koalas are becoming more and more endangered, breeding koalas has become even more necessary.


Billabong Zoo uses the knowledge they gained from captive koala colonies to help and work with wild koala populations. Now they know what koalas need to survive, their limitations and what they need for protection in the wild. This also involves educating the public about the situation of the koalas in the wild, what we can do to help ensure their survival.


Mark hopes that one day, they can breed koalas in captivity that are specifically bred for release. It is his lifelong ambition. At the moment, no zoo in NSW is permitted to do that, but Mark remains optimistic about realising his dream.


“I believe we have the facility, the expertise, and most importantly, the qualified staff to be able to pull this off. The Government needs to look to those with a successful captive breeding program to support a wild koala breeding program.”

Learn more about Billabong Zoo's Koala Breeding Centre here.

If you are interested in supporting Billabong Zoo's koala programme, you can Adopt a Koala here and make a difference!





Growing up at a zoo

"They are the noisiest things in the world," says Brooke about waking up to the sound of peacocks.


Brooke was just seven when her parents moved from Nowra to Port Macquarie and bought Billabong Zoo. Brooke and her older brother Blake grew up on the grounds of the zoo amidst a multitude of furry and scaly friends. One needed no alarm clock living in such an environment as the cacophony of animal sounds is more than enough to wake one up!


Brooke's speciality is the Big Cats!  | Brilliant Online
Brooke's speciality is the Big Cats!

As she grew up, Brooke found her speciality - big cats. When Misty had cubs, Brooke slept at the zoo to make sure the lioness was okay and that her labouring was smooth. Such has been her dedication and passion for wildlife, and it continues to drive her work today. She has done her Vet Nurse training as well as her Zoology degree.


For Brooke, being a Zoo Keeper goes beyond a career. It's a passion and the connection she has built up with the animals is priceless. One could say every animal at Billabong Zoo has become part of the Stone family.


Zoo Keeping - what it's really like

Blake is now the Operations Manager at Billabong Zoo, and having grown up on the grounds just like his sister, he knows every animal and every enclosure inside out. One could say he literally grew into his career.


Zoo Keeping was the most developed skill he had by the time Blake finished school, and it just felt natural for him to carry on at the zoo. Being interested in native and exotic animals led him to obtain his Captive Animals Cert IV and Training and Assessment Certificate IV which gave him the professional qualifications needed to work at Billabong Zoo and teach at TAFE. Blake is now back working full time at Billabong Zoo, managing and leading the next generation of zoo keepers.


What really drives Blake, just like his father Mark, is being passionate about conservation. Billabong Zoo’s motto is ‘Conservation through Education’, and every decision Blake makes focuses on this commitment to conservation, in order to make a real difference for animals and habitat preservation.


“Billabong [Zoo] does a lot in the world of conservation” Blake says. “From the ambassador species our guests see throughout, our support of a number conservation charities to our involvement in both Managed Species Programmes and Breed and Release Programmes”.

Blake has spearheaded a number of animal conservation initiatives at the Zoo. “I am extremely proud of the work we’ve been able to do for endangered and near-threatened species. In the past twelve months alone, Billabong Zoo is the new home to the threatened Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroo, the vulnerable Glossy Black Cockatoo and critically endangered Orange-Bellied Parrots.”


This passion for conservation is evident during the zoo’s daily visitor presentations. Blake and his team of knowledgeable zoo keepers focus on giving visitors take-home messages to make their experience memorable. It's about giving the visitors a good understanding of what conservation is about without coming on too strongly or passionately. It's finding that perfect balance of informative and entertaining, planting the seeds of conservation in the hearts of the visitors so they go home with a better understanding.



Those who are in Australia are fortunate to be living with the fantastic endemic fauna. It is important to nurture a better understanding of the native animals, what to do (and not to do) when they encounter native animals. It gives visitors a much clearer perspective and clear away any misunderstanding or fears of some native animals. Blake hopes patrons can be encouraged to get involved with some of the programmes that the conservation organisations Billabong Zoo promotes.


I want to be a Zoo Keeper!

For readers out there who feel inspired or called to work with animals, the natural question is, how does one become a Zoo Keeper?


It is not an easy industry to break into, and there are so few zoos around which greatly reduces job opportunities. Many start by volunteering their time and studying their TAFE courses. Thereafter they can do their Animal Studies certificate II, and Captive animals certificate III which are the zookeeping-specific qualifications. These are what you need to gain employment in zookeeping. Some are hosted by zoos during their studies and training and this is where students need to leave a good impression so that zoos are happy to have them back as employees.


In line with their conservation efforts, Billabong Zoo has a strong educational component to their events, and there are many ways to be involved with the zoo.


Due to the constant stream of parents and young people requesting to volunteer or have work experience at Billabong Zoo, Blake and his team worked hard to create their Junior and Teen Zoo Keeper programmes.


“Being a zoo keeper isn’t all cuddling with koalas and feeding Shrek the crocodile. There’s a lot of work done that the general public doesn’t necessarily get to see.” Blake says. “You’d be surprised how much of the day is spent on things like raking up kangaroo droppings. These programmes give children and teens a real look at the day in the life of a zoo keeper.”

Young children can experience being Junior Zookeeper for a Day during the school holidays. They are assigned to one of the qualified zookeepers who will guide them through food preparation and the specific diets of the animals. Children learn to care for and protect animals. It is an unforgettable hands-on experience for children to experience the real world of zookeeping.


For 13 to 17-year-old animal lovers, they can be Teen Zookeeper for a Day and learn to take part in the work, training and fun of a zookeeper, assisting in animal feeds, creating enrichment items for and interacting with animal ambassadors.


Or attend their Zoo Talks where the zookeepers take you on a journey of discovery about the animals! and Check out Billabong Zoo's fun events here.


Caring for animals through the generation | Brilliant Online
The Stone Family are keeping Billabong Zoo going strong!

Contact

Billabong Zoo


Opening Hours

Open daily from 9am to 5pm (except Christmas Day)


Tickets

Adult: $42

Child (3-15 years): $29

Senior/Pensioner Discount (card holders only): $40

Family: 2 adults, 2 children (3-15 years): $129


Zoo Annual Pass

Adult: $125

Child (3-15 years): $85

Senior/Pensioner Discount (card holders only): $120


With the festive holidays coming up, a highly appreciative gift for an animal lover would be a Gift Voucher from Billabong Zoo! Find out more here.



Phone: +61 265 851 060

Address: 61 Billabong Dr, Port Macquarie,NSW 2444


References:

 

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