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'I'd wake up to the sound of peacocks.' Brooke Stone shares what it's really like to grow up at a zoo.

Brooke Stone’s childhood was a little different from others.

In 2003, when she was just seven years old, her parents, Mark and Danena Stone moved from Nowra to Port Macquarie, where they made a rather hefty purchase: Billabong Zoo. Apart from inheriting a multitude of new furry friends, Brooke, now 24, and her brother Blake, 27, would go on to grow up on the four-hectare property.

“I could literally walk out from my back doorstep and go and make new friends and educate them about animals even though I was seven,” she told listeners of Mamamia’s That’s Incredible podcast.

With an abundance of animals on her doorstep, Brooke would wake up to the deep rumbling sound of cassowaries, and shrill calls from the peacock enclosure.

“I used to have to share a bedroom with my brother for a little while, and [one of my earliest memories] is waking up to the sound of the peacocks,” she said.

“They are the noisiest things in the world.”

Brooke shares what it was like growing up in a zoo on Mamamia’s podcast, That’s Incredible. Our podcast for parents, kids and teachers. It’s packed with fun facts and amazing stories about the world around us. Post continues below.

Before the Stone’s ownership, Billabong Zoo was primarily known as a koala breeding centre. Now the wildlife park is home to a multitude of exotic animals, including snow leopards, penguins, crocodiles and common marmosets. Working at the zoo as one of their keepers, Brooke specialises in taking care of the big cats.

“We have three different big cat species now. We’re really lucky. We have lions, cheetahs, and we also have snow leopards,” she said.

On January 4 of this year, the zoo welcomed three lion cubs – two females, Zoraya and Nuru, and Kiros, a boy – and it was Brooke who oversaw their birth.

“So the time our lioness [Misty] had her cubs, I actually slept [at the zoo] to make sure everything ran smoothly and that she was good, and she was labouring fine,” she said.

“During that process, I would wake up to the sound of them roaring.”

 

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Fans of the 2011 film, We Bought a Zoo, might recognise a few similarities between Brooke’s story and the one portrayed by Matt Damon where he buys and operates a zoo with his young children.

Speaking to SBS in 2016, Brooke’s father, Mark Stone, said he’s actually met Damon’s real-life counterpart, Benjamin Mee.

“I actually went and spent time with Benjamin Mee, who the story is based on and we were saying yep, it’s like that. Crazy things, unexpected things happen every day – can I even call them unexpected now? Probably not,” he said.

Despite the charms of living amongst exotic animals, the day-to-day operations of running a zoo can prove financially challenging.

“We had 15,000 visitors today and I was going through the numbers and a decade ago we would have that many in a few months,” said Mark.

In 2016, Brooke’s brother, Blake told SBS that the zoo was once “on the verge of closure”.

“It was on the verge of closure, for a zoo it’s unusual and pretty bad. It would have been a huge shame if it had kept going in that downhill trajectory, but Dad has managed to turn it all around,” said Brooke’s dad.

 

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Although Brooke may no longer live at Billabong Zoo, her love and passion for wildlife continues to drive her work.

“For me, being a zookeeper isn’t so much a job, but a passion. Yes, it’s a career, but the passion trumps it overall, and most people in the industry would say the same thing,” she said.

“The connections you build with the animals is uncanny… and if anything happens to that pet you’d just be so upset. It’s the exact same for me, but there’s a lot more animals that I have to hold in my heart.”

Feature image: Instagram @billabongzoo.


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