Reptile rescue centre opens its doors near Barnstaple.

People are being invited to take a closer look at some of the world’s most exotic animals at North Devon’s newest family attraction – a reptile zoo situated on the outskirts of Bishops Tawton.

A childhood spent observing animals in the South African bush has lead to an unusual career path for Marc Harris, who has opened Safe Haven Exotics with wife Leanne.

“I moved to South Africa with my parents when I was eight and I’d only been there a couple of days when I wandered into the bush and saw a lizard on the floor and picked it up and took it home,” said Marc, now aged 50.

“My dad gave me a clip round the ear but he told me it was a chameleon and that is where my passion for reptiles started.

“When we returned to the UK some years later, I saw animals in the pet shop and I couldn’t understand it – to me, animals lived in the wild.”

Hobby became business

The couple have been rehoming reptiles since 2005 and have seen their not-for-profit Community Interest Company (CIC) expand since opening a small shop in Poole, Dorset, in 2009.

“What started out as a hobby has turned into a business – but it had to really,” said Marc.

“A lot of people buy animals on a whim but many become too big to look after.

“Teenagers who were bought a reptile to look after go to university or leave home and the parents don’t want them any more.

“People need to realise what they are buying and taking on; we ask people to do their own research as we want them and the animal to feel relaxed and happy.”

As their reptile rescue operation grew – along with their electricity and food bills – the couple looked further afield for the perfect spot to open a zoo.

“There were so many animals coming in that we soon outgrew the place in Poole,” said Marc.

“For every 100 animals that come in, around 80 are re-homed but some can’t be re-homed for medical reasons.

“We had expanded and evolved so much that people said ‘you might as well open a zoo’, so that’s what we’ve done.

Perfect spot

“We saw this place in Bishops Tawton by accident and had a look – it’s exactly what we need.”

The site at Horswell Farm, near Codden Hill, has hit the headlines in the past – as a swingers club – but Marc hopes its new incarnation will be a welcome addition to North Devon’s tourism industry.

The couple hoped to have been open in time for the start of the school holidays but were only awarded a zoo licence and change of use consent by North Devon Council on August 11.

Zoo licence

“It’s taken longer to open than I’d expected but in a way it’s been a godsend as it’s given me plenty of time to get everything ready,” said Marc.

“It is large enough that we can keep expanding for many years, it has a lovely rural setting and is so peaceful; for the first time since we started the rescue we have a place with an outside area where people can eat lunch or just enjoy the surroundings.”

The centre is home to around 130 creatures, including various species of lizard snake, turtle, insect and spider.

“Most of the animals are up for re-homing,” said Marc. “It’s a bit different to a zoo – people can come in and handle the animals and we will be holding educational talks about the animals and how to look after them.

“It’d be nice to get schools involved and help educate children about the different animals. The last thing I want is for them to come here and then go to a pet shop and say ‘mum, I want one of those’.”

Safe Haven Exotics is open every day from 10am-5pm. For more information, click here.