By Hannah Stevens @hannahshewans

WHILE most kids can only dream of growing up with lions, Aaron Whitnall lived it for real - when his family bought a zoo

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Videographer / director: Jack Stevens
Producer: Hannah Stevens, Ruby Coote
Editor: Jack Stevens

The family now run two separate sites - Paradise Wildlife Park in Hertfordshire and the Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent

Aaron lives in Hertfordshire, England at a very special zoo with a strong family history - Paradise Wildlife Park. The family also run a second site in Kent called the Big Cat Sanctuary, which houses 17 breeds of big cat.

Three decades ago Aaron Whitnall’s grandfather, Peter Sampson, stumbled across the UK’s worst zoo, changing his family’s - and his future grandchildren’s - lives forever.

Sampson has now passed the torch onto his children and grandchildren

When Peter found the dilapidated zoo its only lion had never even felt grass beneath his paws and the whole site was crumbling, so they decided to give the animals a new chance at life and relaunch the zoo.

Sampson said: “We’ve been here 32 years, from my son, my daughter and now my grandsons. They’re all involved and that’s what gives me the most pleasure because you know whatever we achieve, it will always continue.”

When the family first bought the zoo they had no wildlife experience but now they assist in global conservation

“It took a long time to convince people that we’re doing it for the right reasons rather than the wrong reasons though.”

Peter’s daughter Lynn has been involved since the beginning, first helping in her free time and progressing to running the site.

Eldest son Aaron has forged a strong bond with all the animals but especially Rocky the tiger

One of Lynn’s first memories at the park is taking care of their pot bellied pigs when one of them required someone to sleep in the sty to keep an eye on them. She spent the night helping the pig expel the gasses in its stomach - a delightful but smelly memory.

But, for Lynn, the highlight has been raising her three boys at the wildlife park, alongside a young lion cub who required hand-rearing.

Living next door to the park means Aaron and his family wake up to the sound of lion roars every morning

Lynn explained: “Being able to raise the children at the side of the park has just been absolutely amazing - it’s been their back garden.

“Having the lion cub in the house with the children was lovely, they helped nurture her during her first two months. Aaron did actually sleep with Zara for a couple of months downstairs in the games room.

Peter Sampson first bought the zoo when it was dubbed one of the worst in the UK

“There were a couple of times when he was quite tired at school because through the night she wanted to play.

“We did actually get a call from the schools saying, ‘Was there a problem at home?’ And Aaron had actually said in class that he was sleeping with a lion cub and obviously they felt he wasn’t being quite truthful!”

The family have also successfully launched their registered charity The Zoological Society of Hertfordshire

Although the whole family is involved in the wildlife park, eldest son Aaron has formed an unbreakable bond with the animals and wants to dedicate his life to wildlife conservation efforts.

He said: “I was always inspired by Steve Irwin, looking at what his family achieved versus what mine has, he always inspired me so much as a I kid.

Over the next few years the family are planning to renovate the wildlife park and develop their conservation efforts

“I thought I can have everything I want in life here - I can protect animals.”

The family have also successfully launched as a registered charity - The Zoological Society of Hertfordshire - and they are continuing to support new conservation projects across the globe, ranging from protecting indigenous British species like hedgehogs to releasing lions back into the wild in Uganda.

The family have always had a special bond with big cats and house 17 species at the Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent

Although the family have already established a global reputation for their conservation efforts, they are not planning on slowing down anytime soon.

This year Aaron will be travelling to Uganda to visit the lion cub he hand-reared at a wildlife sanctuary and over the next few years the park will be having a full face lift.

The African penguins will be introduced to their new enclosure and the Paradise family aim to gradually make over the site to fit each section into the animal’s natural aesthetic.