Sunday, 23 October 2011

Marwell - friendly rhinos and shy snow leopards

I decided to make the journey to and from Marwell Wildlife Park in a day from Cambridge, which was simple enough on the train, but did mean I got home rather late. Another time I’d be tempted to visit the area for longer, as the surrounding hills and woodlands looked stunning in the August sun.

After a taxi ride with a driver who ‘didn’t believe in zoos’ despite seeming to know an awful lot about the baby snow leopards who had just been born there, I arrived at the park, and wandered down its wide paths to the penguins.

Marwell seems to be part of the trend for hybrid zoos – wide and green enough to be safari parks, but with more traditional enclosures like traditional zoos – like Whipsnade and Port Lympne. As zoos moved out of the cities and further into the countryside, and animal rights issues were raised in the 1970s and onwards, this seems like a natural progression for zoos, and is really rather lovely – although my God you will do a lot of walking.

It was a warm day, with its sticky sunshine interspersed with torrential rain. Baby capybaras dipped into their pool with only their ears visible, an Amur leopard dozed in a sun spot on top of its shed and hundreds of kids gathered round the meerkats, chanting ‘seemples.’

In fact, unbeknownst to most, if not all, of the visitors, behind the charismatic meerkats lurked a much more rare, if not quite so sexy, species. Marwell holds the stud book for both the Arabian and Scimitar horned oryx – both critically endangered species. The Arabian oryx, with its white fur and sweeping black antlers is actually a very attractive beast, and I was sorry to be told by keepers about the difficulty oryx face in their native Middle East, where the land is fiercely divided and guarded by locals, making it difficult for the animals to travel. In fact, the Scimitar horned oryx had at one point gone extinct in the wild, and was only reintroduced as a result of individuals held and bred in zoos. I wonder if the taxi driver knew anything about that?

I was desperate to see the new snow leopards, but the wet weather meant only their mother was outside of the den – looking most unhappy about her sodden fur. Nonetheless, she was a stunning creature, and it was a very special moment for me when a sudden torrent of rain meant I was the only person left in her company. She eyed the rain bouncing from my umbrella, and settled down on her haunches. Magnificent.

Needless to say, when I met up with the park’s PR officer Becky Churcher (a lovely girl who was very patient in answering my hundreds of questions) she told me the cubs had made their public debut only the day before, and had enchanted their audience, gambolling and rolling across the enclosure. Typical!

However, consolation came in the (enormous) form of the park’s three white rhinos, who I was lucky enough to be able to meet.

The three were initially lying down indoors, making gentle snorting and farting noises as they dozed. I was led by their keeper down to the bars in front of them, and stupid as it sounds, it was only then I truly realised how big they are. I’ve seen rhinos before of course, in zoos, on safari and on TV, but until you stand next to one – and when they lumbered grudgingly up to the bars for an ear scratch I realised their shoulders were my height – it’s impossible to get a sense of scale. I was in complete awe of these gentle giants, and their colossal horns which they poked alarmingly through the bars.

There was a distinct pecking (horning?) order, with the two female residents clearly ruling the roost. The poor male would come up for a stroke (behind the ear, and under the ‘armpit’ seemed the most popular spots) only to be nudged out of the way by his female companions.

Their skin felt coarse, and left a huge amount of dirt under my fingernails – as their flesh is actually susceptible to sun damage they roll in mud, like pigs, to protect it. In places where the skin was thinner, it felt deliciously warm.

I could have spent all day touching these fascinating creatures, and it was even more special knowing that they enjoyed the contact – we weren’t feeding them, they just wanted a fuss. And who can blame them?

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Paradise Wildlife Park - graceless tapirs and ticklish lemurs (and my birthday)

This blog post is rather late, mostly because I had flu after my birthday, but also because I have been very busy interviewing zoo-type people (very exciting!)
I had the most lovely 25th birthday thanks to Steve Sampson and the other kind staff at Paradise Wildlife Park.
I was treated to several 'meet and greets' with the animals, including cuddles with the ring tailed lemurs, who had two adorable babies! They clambered all over mum and me in a fruit-based fever, their paw pads surprisingly chilly.
The babies were most obliging, sitting quietly on our laps - when mum received an important phone call she put down her fruit bowl, but instead of following the food, one of the babies climbed up her arm to sit on her shoulder. Cute, but rather distracting.
It was interesting for me to see the social structure of the group, as it's very different to Shepreth's all-female gang. This mixed-gender group had a father figure, and then rather down trodden young males, one of whom hid behind my back, allowing me to sneak him pieces of watermelon.

We then went in with a boisterous group of male black and white ruffed lemurs, who leaped around showing off. One of them hung upside down from the roof of his cage by his toes - presumably just because he could...
These boys, who were all named after characters in My Name is Earl, had a weakness for being tickled under the arm pit, but they had to come close enough first. After a few minutes of staring at us, one got onto mum's lap, stretching his front paw out helpfully, to let her give him a stroke. Then one climbed into my lap, which was heaven. His bright little eyes flicked around the enclosure, as his raised one paw slowly. His fur was soft, if slightly tangled, and very thick.
People outside the enclosure stared in at us, until we began to feel like zoo specimens ourselves.
It was then on to the moment I had been most looking forward to - meeting the tapirs. Every time I meet an animal close up, I'm always surprised by them. I assumed tapirs were just gentle giants...which they are, sort of....whilst also being extremely clumsy and short sighted! They staggered around the pen, blundering into us and their keeper without a care in the world. I could begin to see how forest clearings happened with these guys around.
Once we had got used to moving swiftly out of the way went they decided (without warning) to lie down on our feet/hands/bags, we gave them a good scratch on their bellies, which they seemed to love.
Their hair was short, coarse and rather grubby, and they explored us with their long, mobile snouts in a most endearing fashion.
The sun came out, and the three tapirs dozed beside us. What could be a better way to turn 25?
The rest of the zoo was in an excitable mood too, with a tiger catching (and killing) a pigeon which had flown into its enclosure (a bit off-putting while we were having cheese sandwiches in the beautiful treetops cafe).
We bought paper bags of food and were able to get close to some of the park's other animals, such as zebra (who had just had a baby), reindeer and an emu (a bit scary to feed!). Paradise is a great place to meet animals, as well as a really beautifully laid out zoo - I recommend a visit asap.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

London zoo, back in the day

Just had to share this. Man I wish I was this little girl!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Port Lympne - grumpy rhinos and giraffes on the horizon

A fortnight ago my boyfriend Ross and I went to the wilds of Africa, without ever leaving the Uk, when Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent offered to put us up at the rather swich Livingstone Lodge. This was glamping at its very best. Our decadent tent contained a beautiful four poster bed, electric lamps and a heater, and some lovely bath products and soft dressing gowns. We dragged our chairs on to our private balcony, sipped G&Ts and watched a variety of herbivores nibble the green fields in front of us.

It took some getting used to – watching giraffe arrive over the horizon in front of Dungeness power station, or wildebeest grazing amongst mallards and rabbits, but it was all rather wonderful.
The weather was blissfully warm (a relief, as the temperature in the tents does drop come nightfall) and we were treated to two safari drives – one in the evening and one again after breakfast.
Having been on safari in South Africa before, it was strangely familiar driving around in a jeep with two African guides - Warren and Sandile - filling us in on the different species in front of us.
One of my favourite things about wildlife is that there’s always more to know, and I learnt so much on the drives. For example, you can guess where different species live across Africa by looking at their faces: big ears and small eyes means it’s from a wooded area and relies on its hearing and sense of smell, whereas small ears and larger eyes means it’s probably from the plains.
Warren briefed us on safety, with a typically dry South African sense of humour:
“Save your partner if you can, but leave your children; you don’t need them.”
Both Warren and Sandile were experienced rangers before they joined Port Lympne, and take an unsentimental view on the park’s individual animals (“We don’t know their names, it’s just a giraffe…or a rhino…”) while simultaneously being passionate about conservation.
This is what the park was designed for, as a sanctuary for breeding animals for release in their native countries, which explains its unusual design. While many zoos will have just a handful of one species, such as a pair of rhinos, Port Lympne has numerous individuals in enormous, separate fields. It has the largest collection of black rhinos in the UK, and five have been sent back to Africa.

I hadn’t realised quite how different white and black rhinos were, as aside from their facial differences (white have wide, square mouths; black have pointed lips) we were told that while whites are gregarious, social animals, blacks are rather short tempered and solitary. As Warren put it: “When it gets up in the morning it hates the world and it hates being a black rhino because it has no friends.”
The sense of space makes it perfect to see via a safari tour, as on foot there are quite a few hills and it’s a large space to cover. Also the signposting leaves something to be desired – we spent a while detouring down a steep hill to see the gorillas, only to not see them. It turned out their sleeping quarters were in a different area, but there were no signs to suggest this.
On the plus side, spacious enclosures with plenty of hiding places are good news for the animals, and they all seemed relaxed and comfortable.
Staying at the Lodge is a very special experience (most of our fellow guests were celebrating birthdays or anniversaries) both because there isn't quite anywhere else like it, and also because of its welcoming atmosphere. We shared enormous buffet meals at the llapa (a wooden lodge which also reminded me of Africa) and watched the chef flambe pineapple on huge open flames, as the sun set outside. We snuck off with our wine onto the wooden terrace to get a proper view.
In the morning, unzipping my tent and feeling like a child on Christmas morning, I staggered blearily onto our balcony to see an Asian water buffalo chewing serenly outside, by the watering hole.

After a full English breakfast (except for veggies like me who prefered a continental option) we watched as keepers drove past with biscuits for the herds of creatures, and watched zebras and wildebeest chow down just metres away from us.
It was a truly magical experience - even more so when we were told all the profits go back into conservation - and I will never forget being woken by the sound of a buffalo munching cud, or the sight of giraffes approaching over the hills and scattering rabbits across a very British field.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Colchester zoo - elephant saliva and snail slime

Last weekend, on a very sunny Sunday, I went to Colchester Zoo with my friend Jenna.
Naturally it was very busy, but I was excited to be there as I'd be wanting to visit for ages.
I wasn't disappointed, as the very first animals we saw - a magnificent pair of sun bears - were busying themselves removing fruit from the roof of their cage, demonstrating their ingenuity and long tongues in equal measure. The keeper on duty was very informative, and told me of the zoo's plans to build a new, more appropriate home for them - they are currently in the orangutans old cage, and keep eating the window sealant! The pair were rescued from Cambodia where they were being traded as pets, and thankfully seem to have settled into zoo life very well.
Colchester Zoo is the best zoo to visit if you want to get up close and personal with animals without having to prebook or pay any extra. Whilst the giraffe encounter at Banham Zoo was fantastic, you did have to pre-plan it into your schedule and pay a little extra, and most zoos cost even more (sometimes the best part of £100) to meet giraffes. At Colchester you queue up with lots of pushy parents and nervous children to be given a small twig each. The giraffe was then neatly paraded up and down the line of people, delicately picking each frond from our hands.

It lacked the privacy of the Banham experience, and of course it didn't last long and was rather difficult to photograph with everyone elbowing you, but for a spontaneous (and more importantly free) giraffe interaction it was pretty great.
Even better was the chance to feed the elephants - something I'd never done before. We arrived to see an enormous queue, and thought we wouldn't stand a chance of getting near the two gentle giants, but happily it moved really fast, and in no time I was stood in front of a spectacular grey lady, proffering a cabbage leave.

Obligingly she reached out with her saliva-coated trunk, and plucked it from me. I was delighted. The trunk itself felt rather strange, it was almost like a hand in mittens, with its strong grip - she almost took my hand with her!

For some slightly less pleasant encounters I found some bugs to handle (much to Jenna's disgust) including a giant stick insect, an African snail and a hissing cockroach.

I'd handled a cockroach and stick insect previously on a trip to Blackpool zoo at university, but this was my first giant snail, and I have to say I wasn't much looking forward to it. But, ever the show-off, I knew I had to do it, and actually, looking into its funny little eyes, and seeing its primitive mouth working on my hand it was almost...well, cute. I was especially enchanted when its handler told me to stroke its shell - apparently it soothes it, and persuades it to keep its head out in the open.

After a rather slimy morning of encountering creatures, we cooled off indoors to watch an 'amazing animals' type of talk. I was expecting armadillos (the staple of this type of talk I'm starting to discover) but actually a ring tailed lemur took centre stage, leaping around joyously, before being followed by two macaws. I was really surprised to find out they are actually as intelligent as a 3 -4 year old child - pretty incredible stuff.
We went to see the tigers, who were attempting to detach hunks of meat from large blue enrichment balls, with some difficulty. While the view was great from the surrounding tunnel between the two cages, the heat was intense, and there were around 50 sweaty bodies to contend with, so we didn't stick around for long.

Colchester Zoo is extremely well kept, with hundreds of different talks and activities going on throughout the day. I would definitely recommend it for its encounters alone, and there was so much to do I'm already planning my next visit to finish it all off...and meet my slimy friends again!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Banham Zoo – pushy giraffes and a busy red panda

Feeding a small herd of giraffes is not as easy as you might expect. Watching them gracefully sweep across their paddock towards you, their liquid eyes gleaming up at you beguilingly from beneath long eyelashes, it’s hard to imagine how powerful they really are.
Holding willow branches out to them, my mum and I realised pretty quickly that the number one rule of giraffe feeding is: hold on tightly. For these ‘gentle’ giants would easily rip the entire branch out of your hands, in their lust for tender leaves and chewy strips of bark.
Their keeper, who was very kind and informative, tried telling us lots of giraffe facts, but I was rather distracted as one of them mistook the strap on my camera for a tasty shoot, and I was left wrestling her for it. Luckily I won that battle, and she went back to delicately removing strips of bark with her long, grey tongue.
Giraffe tongues are usually about 19-20 inches, and we were told to mind our feet in case the herd’s two curious babies (adorable with tufty horns) poked theirs up onto the platform.

“Watch out for that one, she has a bit of a cold and caught someone with a sneeze the other day,” the keeper told me cheerfully, as the lady in question slobbered her way up my branch. I had such a wonderful view of her flat teeth, lightly freckled nose, and those appealing dark eyes that I wouldn’t have cared if she had snotted all over me, although thankfully she didn’t!
I would recommend the experience (an incredible £7.50) to anyone in need of an upper body workout – just make sure you don’t have too many bags to hold on to, as you’ll need all your grip available for the branches, and get someone else to take your photos so you don’t lose your camera to a feisty herbivore.
We strolled around the rest of the zoo in a happy giraffe-slobbery haze, visiting the cheetahs in time for their feed. The education officer threw them chunks of beef, which they asked for noisily with their strange, kitten-like meows.
Banham is a great zoo for big cats, with dozing tigers, stunning leopards in their spotted jumpsuits, and an adorable family of five snow leopards, curled in blissful sleep. Some of the smaller cats looked decidedly less happy, with an ocelot pacing his modest pen. I’m hopeful the zoo will be expanding these enclosures in the future, as there seemed to be lots of building work going on, and they don’t need to worry about space. In fact Banham has a lovely feeling of spaciousness, with an enormous tiger enclosure, and paddocks all around for their working horses and donkeys.
There was also a delightful red panda who kept us amused for about half an hour, wandering around his pen, stuffing bamboo leaves into his mouth and generally looking like a big ginger teddy bear.

The talks are worth making a point of visiting, particularly Amazing Animals, where I got to hold more rainbow lorikeets (always a delight!) and get a close view of a kinkajou, which was utterly captivating. Now my mission in life is to hold one of these supple raccoon-like animals, and feel its soft, prehensile tail draped around my neck…

Although having googled them I found this story, which might just have changed my mind:

Monday, 30 May 2011

London zoo - randy warthogs and butterfly hands

It's hard not to feel affection for London Zoo. For one thing it's the country's oldest zoo, as shown in its many listed buildings. The twisted concrete structure once used for penguins, which was entirely inappropriate but very beautiful, has been preserved, but happily the penguins have a brand new beach area which they seemed delighted with. Sadly the giraffes remain in their old-fashioned house, and I watched one gloomily failing to reach the trees growing in the zebra pen, its tongue stretched as far as it would go.
The giraffe enclosure is by far the most upsetting in the zoo, but I also saw lots of satisfied creatures, none more so than the pygmy hippo, preparing his mud wallow by treading it down in a circle, before settling down blissfully with a happy sigh.

I'm equally joyous in the butterfly house, where a kindly volunteer places a stunning Indian Leaf butterfly on to my hand.

It's a grey, humid day when I visit the zoo, and the gorillas are inside their shelter. I watch the enormous silverback settle into his bed of straw, mice chasing around his ankles. As he nibbles at his wrists, picking off any bugs, I eavesdrop on two volunteers talking about his parentage - apparently he was born at Dublin Zoo and his father is twice his size, so he's expected to grow.
I wander off to see the warthogs, past the African hunting dogs who are, as usual, fast asleep in their marbled pyjamas. There's a strange noise, like a motorbike revving, and at first I think it's coming from a boat on the river, but suddenly realise it's coming from the male warthog, who is doggedly pursuing a reluctant female. He chases her around the enclosure, before she urinates - presumably to prove to him she isn't in season - which he sniffs sadly. He stops his awful noise, and lies down in the mud. Never have you seen a more dejected creature.
Friday is a great day to visit the zoo, particularly the week before half term, as it's nice and quiet. I get great views of the otters crunching up prawns in their pool, and lions asleep on their wooden platforms.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Shepreth - curious meerkats and a lemur on my head

I have always had a soft spot for Shepreth. Small but perfectly formed, it has a surprising number of animals on site.
I was there last Friday to write a 'Love Your Zoo Week' article for the Cambridge News, and was lucky enough to get up close and personal (with a particular skunk, very personal) with various creatures.
I started by cuddling Pepe (as in Le Pew, although actually he didn't smell at all) who dozed in my arms, before trying to lick my lipbalm (skunks prefer Carmex)
Reluctantly I handed him back to the park's director, and was allowed in with a boisterous group of five meerkats. I settled down in the sand and handed them some live locusts (I was very brave). They crunched away delightedly, and didn't seem to mind me being there. In fact, one of them felt so comfortable he tried to climb my back. Perhaps I would have made a good look out post?

It was then on to see the cusimanses (mongoose-type, brown-striped critters) and their less welcome neighbours the grumpy porcupine family, who keeper Grace kept well away from me. They were a little bit reluctant, we suspect they weren't terribly hungry, but soon enough an intrepid individual climbed on my lap to take some raw mince from a bowl, which he dragged away, never taking his beady eyes off me.
Later it was back to see my old friends the ringtailed lemurs (who I have been fortunate enough to meet and greet several times in the past). Interestingly, the social structure has completely changed since I was last there, so now the formerly bullied long-tails are now top dogs (as it were) and lord it over the short-tails. I'm not quite sure why that is. Anyway I did my best to make sure everyone got their fair share of banana.

I then got to cuddle with a less furry individual - a 10 foot python, who was very heavy and rather stunning. My final 'treat' was putting my hand in a tank of piranhas. The problem is, once someone has dared me to do something, I generally will... But actually they were very well mannered, hardly even glancing up at the phantom hand floating above them.
The keepers (and animals) were so welcoming, I wish I could go back right now!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Linton - cotton top tamarins and a dried up duck pond

I'm not sure what it is about Linton Zoo that I find depressing... Perhaps it's the over grown evergreens which block most of the light; the snow leopards washing in their tiny enclosure; or simply the fact that my mum took me there the day after my parents announced their divorce when I was 13... but the place has always given me a slightly uneasy feeling.
I visited last Bank Holiday Monday, and found the place exactly as I remembered it from my childhood. Rather dark, uncared for and with the same grim-looking children's play park.
"He looks about as miserable as me." Said my mum flatly, as we watched a leopard peer gloomily out from his house. His cage, and many of the other enclosures, were mysteriously decorated with dead Christmas trees.
Two snow leopards washed; a pair of lions dozed; a shell duck looked for water in an empty pond.
I know that Linton has won awards in the past for its standard of care, but the place to me has a feeling of neglect. More like a zoo from the 1950s or 60s.
It wasn't all bad: we found a family of cotton top tamarins grooming one another in their house, and watched a giant tortoise attempt to eat a piece of carrot far too big for it.
I have to say though, if you are looking for a zoo in the Cambridge area, Shepreth has much more going for it.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Bristol - escaping kookaburras and tiny lemurs

Yesterday we escaped the bunting and Union Jack plastic hats of the imminent Royal nuptials and headed for sunny Bristol.
The zoo had a real family feel, bustling with small children whining for ice cream and generally being poorly educated by their parents (Why must the largest animal in a cage automatically be "the daddy"?)
Bristol Zoo has a pleasant scale to it - there's enough to warrant its £14 entry fee, while still being small enough to see in a day. After sweating it out in the aquarium house, we lolled on the grass, and were treated to an educational display featuring an enchanting armadillo, who scuttled around on the stage, knocking over logs to find tasty titbits. Much less cooperative was Sydney, the croaking kookaburra who seemed to be giving his slightly frazzled Scottish keeper the run around (wing around?)
I could see his point though - I mean, she was the one who encouraged him to 'kill' the deadly rubber snake she waggled at him. How was he to know when to let go? Certainly not when she lifted him up by it...nor when she tried to distract him with actual food. No, he wanted to make sure it was really dead. Sensible if you ask me. While she ran her fingers through her hair in exasperation she explained that he was behaving relatively well, compared to recently when she'd spend three days trying to trail him around Clifton after a flying display went wrong. They do say never work with animals or children. Obviously she didn't get the memo.
Other highlights were a string of mesmeric leaf cutter ants, the surprisingly lively aye ayes and an Asiatic lion cub tucking into a cow's head with gusto.
The 'ahh bless' moment of the day came in the nocturnal house, with a teeny tiny grey mouse lemur (think capable of charming dinner guests by producing one from a tea cup). We originally thought (naively) that it was trying to get a better look at us, as it reared up on the end of a branch. As its expression became more and more strained, we realised it was in fact slavering at some sort of grasshopper/locust type creepy crawly which was attached to the glass in front of us. The lemur climbed to the top of the window, and proceeded to dangle by one back paw, stretching its forepaws in vain at its prospective lunch. After some minutes of intense desperation, the insect teasingly shifted an ill-judged inch up the glass, where it met a mercifully speedy end. We cheered. The lemur contemplated how it would manage the locust, while upside down and hanging on with one foot. Naturally, it stuffed the entire creature into its mouth, closing its tiny eyes with unadulterated bliss.
I reached my own state of bliss when I realised there was scope for animal interaction at Bristol, in the lorikeets' forest. My boyfriend (not a bird fan) was sweet enough to come in with me (covering his nest-like head of curls with a protective arm) and take some photos of me rapturously offering the colourful birds a cup of feed. Apart from a brief squabble on my wrist, they were well behaved, and posed rather well I feel. I hope you agree.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Lions and tigers and bears

Why zoos? Why a guide? Why this girl?
I've always loved zoos, and I see no sign of that fading as I get older (sorry long-suffering family)... but let's be honest, they are an expensive day out, and more importantly, vary in quality of variety/standard of care/chips in the cafe.
I've therefore set up this grass-lined blog to review some of the country's zoos (not to mention safari parks, wildlife exhibits in theme parks, etc) to give you an overview of what they have on offer.
Bring on the face paint, helium balloons and penguin pencil toppers, I'm off to Bristol Zoo tomorrow.....