The privately owned south coast Mogo Zoo has risen from "very humble beginnings" to be named Australia's most popular wildlife attraction by the website TripAdvisor.
The zoo near Batemans Bay topped a list of 10 wildlife attractions that notably did not include Sydney's Taronga Zoo.
Coming second in the list was the Werribee Open Range Zoo in Victoria and third was the Rainbow Jungle parrot sanctuary in Kalbarri, WA. The Australian Reptile Park on the NSW central coast was No.4, Melbourne Zoo was No.5, with Taronga's Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo rated No.6.
The TripAdvisor site offers "trusted advice from real travellers" to millions of tourists around the world, with everyday users rating accommodation options as well as attractions and restaurants they have visited.
Although Melbourne Zoo, Taronga Zoo and Australia Zoo received the most reviews of any Australian wildlife attraction, it is Mogo that rates the highest among those who have visited. "It's truly wonderful to think that the public has voted this, and it's people writing wonderful comments about Mogo Zoo, so thank you to all of them," owner Sally Padey said of the news.
"For something that we started 24 years ago with $4000 and a dream, it's my absolute heart … I get tremendous pleasure out of the pleasure people get from my zoo."
The zoo started with "the shell of a shed, concrete floor and a very old house that should have been bulldozed" and three African servals as the first animal inhabitants. Today the zoo has an extensive range of animals, with its newest residents a family of gorillas.
"It just confirms that what we're doing here is offering our customers the best experience," marketing manager Scott Stuart said. "We're not only offering great exhibits, we've got affordable entry, great gift shop … and then we've got this encounters range."
Among other things, the zoo offers visitors the chance to feed lions or tigers, play with meerkats or get up close with pygmy marmosets - the world's smallest monkey. Passionate animal lovers have the opportunity to be a zookeeper for a day.
"I think it's those sorts of experiences and interactions and those options that we're giving people [which] make it memorable, and I think it sticks in their mind," Mr Stuart said. "People may have heard about [Mogo Zoo] but until they get here and see the array of animals and the types of animals, they're blown away - it is this little hidden gem, and … it exceeds their expectations."