Fast forward seven years and the former petting zoo, now Yorkshire Wildlife Park, is home to an array of exotic animals including four polar bears.
The park that has quickly become the region’s top tourist attraction is the only place in the country where you can see a polar bear, let alone four.
Last week was another milestone moment for the Branton based park when new polar bear Nobby joined the ranks.
The two-year-old bear from Munich joined Nissan, also aged two, three-year-old Pixel and Europe’s biggest bear 16-year-old Victor.
I was amongst the visitors mesmerised when I saw the park’s first visitor Victor for the first time. But when I was offered the opportunity to get up close and personal with the awesome foursome I jumped at the chance.
Thanks to the Yorkshire Wildlife Park’s Polar Bear Experience visitors can now meet Victor, Pixel, Nissan and new bear Nobby face to face.
To mark International Polar Bear Day last Saturday and the impending release of new animated polar bear film Norm of the North, I went along to test out the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The experience starts before the park opens to the public, giving you VIP access to see the bears up close in their house.
And if you think they look big in their 10-acre enclosure just wait until you are standing inches from the magnificent animals. Before I had chance to truly take in just how amazing the bears were the next thing I knew a sandwich was thrust into my hand to feed Victor, the park’s biggest bear.
I had imagined standing feet away with some tongs to lower the sandwich into half-tonne Victor’s mouth but I was told as long as I kept my fingers away, I’d be fine.
Feeling a little nervous I pushed the sandwich towards expectant Victor who was the perfect gentle giant taking the treat carefully from my hand.
Turns out as well as being a fish lover Victor is a big fan of mayonnaise and even partial to a serving of peanut butter. You learn something every day.
We were then given the chance to watch the bears as they made their way into their enclosure, a truly amazing experience. Getting to see the bears up close, let alone feed one by hand, was an experience I will never forget.
The Park’s Polar Bear Experience is available at limited times throughout the year and is already sold out for the year.
The limited edition experience also gives visitors a unique insight into polar bear conservation work going on at the Branton-based park.
YWP is at the forefront of animal conservation and is part of a global project to save polar bears which are threatened by disappearing habitat and hunting. Project Polar is the one of the largest reserves in the world and a dynamic initiative for conservation, welfare and research.
YWP has been a leading force in polar bear conservation since launching Project Polar in 2014, bringing the world’s largest land carnivore to Yorkshire. The all-male group has been united in co-ordination with the European Endangered Species Programme for polar bears.
The purpose built polar bear centre is one of the biggest in the world, spanning 10 acres - about 8.5 football pitches and divided into four sections, featuring landscaped hills, valleys, lakes with water up to 8m deep, pools and waterfalls.
It was designed in consultation with world experts to be a centre for Polar Bear conservation and research as well as for bears with welfare needs, offering a stimulating complex environment.
Director John Minion said: “Polar bears are an iconic species that are increasingly threatened in their native habitat and we need to fight their cause. Their native sea ice is disappearing due to climate change but we still have a chance to do something about it. It is also vital that we understand how to care for these bears appropriately in captivity and provide for their needs.
“The reserve, which has been designed around the needs of the polar bear, gives the bears the space they need to enjoy natural behaviour such as swimming, roaming and foraging in a physically varied and stimulating complex environment.”
Norm of the North will be in Cinemas from March 18.
To find out more about the polar bear experience visit polar bear