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.