‘Wonderful’ Trudy escaped the Nazi terror to run Exmouth Zoo

Founder of Exmouth Zop passes away

Founder of Exmouth Zop passes away - Credit: Archant

Trudy Smith, who died earlier this month, aged 85, had a truly remarkable life.

Founder of Exmouth Zop passes away

Founder of Exmouth Zop passes away - Credit: Archant

Many will remember her for her part in running Exmouth Zoo alongside her late husband, zoologist Ken Smith.

From 1957 to 1986, Exmouth Zoo was the heart and soul of the seafront, and from 1962, when the Smiths took it over, it was the semi-regular setting for the iconic BBC children’s programme, Animal Magic.

But that wasn’t the half of it, for Trudy, of Egremont Road, was Jewish, born Ruth Boley, in Hamburg, Germany, on April 14, 1930 - three years before Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany.

Born into a climate of fear, at the age of eight, Trudy was put on a train to escape the danger.


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The Kindertransport was organised by the UK Government which saved 10,000 Jewish children from the Nazis.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain allowed unaccompanied children to be granted asylum, and Steve Williams, Trudy’s son-in-law, told the Journal: “She never saw her family again. We think her father died in a concentration camp, and her mother and brother were killed in the Hamburg Blitz (in 1943).”

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Trudy was now on her own in a strange country, but was soon adopted by a wealthy London family, the Grove-Hills.

He added: “She was the poster girl for the British Government’s appeal for families to take in these children.”

In her early 20s she applied for a job as a junior keeper at Paignton Zoo, and was interviewed by zoologist Kenneth Smith.

Steve added: “Trudy was still going by the name of Ruth, and people called her Rudy.

“When she started working at Paignton, she was very shy, and when someone asked her name they misheard, and the name Trudy stuck.”

Ken and Trudy fell in love, married and built the Zoo Park in Jersey from scratch, despite having a young family.

In 1962 they moved to Exmouth: “Bush babies, kincachoos, puma cubs were all brought home to our flat in Raleigh Road, and were taken care of and became part of the family”, said Trudy’s daughter Kelsay.

“If someone found an injured badger, or a baby buzzard fell out of its nest, where you would take it? The zoo.

“I’ve still got a scar on my finger where a badger bit me when I was young.”

Two-foot gila monsters were taken out for ‘little walks’ on the Maer, and she added: “I remember mum shouting at dad ‘you can’t do that, they are poisonous lizards, what happens if they bite a child?’ and dad saying ‘don’t worry, it will be all right!’”

Trudy Smith had many passions – one of them was ‘all things English’ including Nelson and music from composers like William Blake and Vaughan Williams.

A fervent campaigner against animal cruelty, for years she lobbied for a ban on fox hunting, and frequently wrote letters to national newspapers.

Soon after Labour came into power she got her wish – as well as a new boiler and heating system, promised to OAPS by the new government: “She absolutely adored Gordon Brown, she had so many press cuttings of him,” said Kelsay.

“According to her, it was Gordon Brown who personally came in and put in new radiators and a boiler.

“I once said ‘mum did he really come round and do it himself?’

“Mum said ‘well he might as well have done!’”

Famous for a dry sense of humour she was also a very private person, and didn’t like to shout about her accomplishments.

Granddaughter Emma said: “She never got it; I don’t think she realised how famous she was and how much people admired her. At Newquay Zoo I was speaking to one of the zoo keepers who was sweeping out a cage. He is only 20 and he said ‘oh I know Trudy Smith!’

Even in retirement zoo keepers called her for advice on subjects like how to best to bottle-rear a baby giant-anteater.

She added: “John Meeks (the curator of Newquay) was always saying ‘she is such a wonderful woman’.

Kelsay added: “Towards the end she was really happy; her spark came back.

“She died surrounded by her family, I was holding her hand.

“She did everything she wanted to do, and she left us so many happy memories and we had an amazing childhood.”

An article, originally printed in the Views Magazine in 2009 about Exmouth Zoo will be published in next week’s Journal.

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