Monday, 2 July 2012

Hamerton Zoo - purring cheetahs and soggy meerkats

Hamerton Zoo is tucked into miles of rambling farmland in Sawtry, teeming with skylarks, yellowhammers and even the occasional red kite.
I visited on a rather rainy Thursday, and was lucky enough to get up close and personal with some of the zoo’s hand-reared cheetah cubs, Makali and Tyson. This mischievous pair seemed delighted to have company, and greeted me with throbbing purrs, before winding up against my legs like over-grown kittens. The brothers – which keepers can only tell apart from the distinctive markings on their tails – are full of energy, as demonstrated by the chewed-up footballs littering their enclosure, and at one point Makali rolls onto his back, offering up his soggy tummy for a scratch. Needless to say, I’m enchanted by them.
But even on a wet day there’s still plenty to see at Hamerton, and while the zoo’s amazing pair of aardwolves (it’s one of only two zoos in Europe to house these) may be staying resolutely indoors, I’m still able to get a good look at a new pair of ring tailed lemur babies, clinging contentedly to their mothers.
Following the paths round – many of which are covered, which on a day like this is a relief – I’m chuntered at by a group of meerkats, before creeping quietly into the sloth enclosure. Here, as my eyes adjust to the dark, I suddenly realise I’m alone, and barely a metre away from a stunning toe-toed sloth, who is reclining blissfully in the most awkward position I’ve ever seen. Listening to the rain beating on the roof, I watch him breathing peacefully, admiring the whirls of his thick fur and the strength of his powerful limbs, before he turns his teddy-bear face towards me and fixes me with his liquid gaze for several seconds. I hold my breath; it’s truly a luxury to be so close to such an expressive creature, and as he yawns and drifts back off to sleep, I leave quietly, wondering who else I might meet.
The treats aren’t over yet, as the rain eases off and I head out into the back fields where the predators are kept. Blizzard, the statuesque white tiger looks ready for his close-up, lying like a model across the hill in his enclosure, while his orange partner Lady Belle looks on admiringly. I move on to visit the pair of maned wolves who are long-legged and russet, and notice behind them, in the next enclosure along, are two cheetahs, prowling the fences. Not bad to see two such different and attractive predators side by side, in a little patch of English countryside

West Midlands Safari Park - a cross eyed tiger and a harmonica-playing elephant

Having entered a bid in a charity auction held by my old friends at Shepreth and completely forgetting about it, I was delighted to find I’d won two tickets for a VIP Safari at the West Midlands Safari Park.
Ross and I drove up there in late October and had to stay over at my aunt’s house, as it meant an early start. In fact, you arrive several hours before any visitors are allowed it – to enable you to help out with feeding – which meant a rather cold and confusing wait in an empty car park before we eventually met our guide, David.
I started to thaw out once inside his landrover, and we set off at lightning speed to meet our first creature of the day – a greater one horned rhino. He was like an enormous, hugely powerful, baby as he opened his mouth widely for us to throw carrots inside, which he then gulped down with barely a chew. As Ross had a go, I had time to admire the smart platelets of armour covering the rhino’s body; very different to the white rhinos of Marwell.
It was a thrill-packed morning and we had to get a move on, so it was off to feed a giraffe, who gracefully bent down over the side of his fence to pluck banana chunks from out outstretched hands. Unlike the feeding session at Banham, which took place on a raised platform, here we were at ground level and I don’t think I’ve ever felt smaller than looking up at his hooked lips swooping down towards me.
Next we met Five, the elephant (still not entirely sure why she’s called that, but I’m reassured it’s nothing to do with the boyband) who posed politely for photos, before performing some impressive party tricks, including a blast on a harmonica!
Finally we had (another) encounter with my old favourites, the lemurs. Black and white ruffs this time, and they took raisins most daintily from my hands.
Zooming around in the landrover, there were more treats to come, as we were in prime position to watch the park’s lions be released for their morning feed. It’s fair to say I was grateful for the protection of the vehicle as they tore across the fields towards chunks of meat.
We also got up close to the park’s white lions, and met their cross-eyed white tiger, who bounced playfully in his cage at our arrival.
Best of all, we released the wolves and cheetahs from their overnight enclosures and watched them stream out into the paddocks.  David encouraged us to run alongside, and despite us going at full pelt – red cheeks glowing – it was clear the big cats were only humouring us, as they galloped next to us.
After lunch we were left to explore the park and its amusements at our leisure, and I’m sure there was plenty we didn’t get a chance to see. We watched a sea lion display and took a spin on a Twister ride, before heading home, tired but happy.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Good news for zoos

Anyone who says zoos have no place in the modern world ought to read this:
An amazing project that I really hope will be a success!

Bioparco Rome - hungry mosquitoes and lively baboons

I was surrounded by wildlife as soon as I arrived at the Bioparco. Unfortunately it was mosquitos, who took rather a shine to my pasty legs. Scratching and cursing we entered the park’s impressive gateway and began wandering around in the Italian midday heat.
The park was attractively laid out, with shaded paths running up and down hills, and plenty of space. The strangest thing was that compared to British zoos, which are usually heaving most days of the week, the park was really very quiet, and we enjoyed long periods without seeing anyone. That said, it was also odd not to see many keepers out and about – perhaps they don’t work over the day’s hottest hours?
The main problem with it was that while there was plenty of space for pedestrians, the same treatment hadn’t been granted to its inhabitants – with tigers perched on narrow ledges, and a pair of Asian elephants failing to escape the sun in their bare enclosure.
It wasn’t the worst zoo I’ve ever seen (that prize goes to Beijing) but it did remind me just how high the standard of most British zoos is.
We saw an enormous colony of baboons, again without enough space, clambering over rope ladders, picking fights with one another (and grubs off one another) and chasing crows away from their food.
It was lovely to see some of the more unusual lemurs kept here, alongside the ubiquitous ring tails, there were black lemurs and red ruffed lemurs all enjoying the hot weather and in good spirits.
I was upset at the hippo enclosure watching a group of people old enough to know better trying to get their attention by throwing twigs at them, and playing their ring tones loudly. It really bugs me when people try to attract the attention of animals, through whatever method. I understand when it’s kids, but so often it’s adults showing off to one another. To me, part of the appeal of zoos is that you never know which creatures will be awake, or interacting, or feeding…and which will be asleep in their ponds, ears flicking above the surface. It just means when you do see an animal that’s a bit more lively, it makes it more special and unusual. I would hate to visit a zoo where animals were too stressed to snooze, or forced to perform, and it strikes me as arrogant to think anything else.
A case in point was when we went to visit the brown bears, who actually had a much nicer enclosure than many of the other animals, and we couldn’t see any evidence of them. Instead of banging on the glass, we went on our merry way to see the wolves, who were lying in the shade, relaxing.
It’s a strange balance for the zoo industry, making appropriate cages for creatures. On the one hand, you want them to be able to hide from the public gaze, and have some privacy, on the other, you need your guests to be able to see each animal to appreciate its role in your zoo. Personally, I’d rather not see a bear or tiger and know it’s lurking mysteriously somewhere in the undergrowth, than see the haunted face of one with nowhere to hide. But maybe that’s because I go to zoos so often – if I don’t see a creature in one, I’m bound to come across it in another!

Whipsnade - parading elephants and galloping wild boar

Whipsnade was developed by ZSL as London Zoo became less and less suitable for some of its larger animals. The Asian elephants, for example, were decamped to the rolling hillsides of Whipsnade, where they have thrived.
One of the highlights of my September trip to the park was the elephant parade, which saw several adults, and one adorable baby, marching back to their overnight shelter, with the tail in front held in their trunks. It was very Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’.
Whipsnade is great for large mammals – there’s lions, tigers, cheetahs, elephants, rhinos and giraffes to name a few – but I really enjoy its native woodland species, such as lynx, boar and brown bears, which I like to imagine roaming Britain’s ancient forests.
The gorgeous European lynx was the proud mother of two new cubs, which fresh from the disappointment of the snow leopard babies (or lack of) at Marwell, it was a real pleasure to see lazing on a log outside.
Bigger babies could be seen further along in the wild boar pen, where a host of lively youngsters galloped around in circles, stomping the earth into thick mud, before collapsing exhausted.
It was really lovely to visit the zoo with my boyfriend, dad and step-mother for company, as I’ve been visiting a lot of them solo, and having company makes it much more fun, not to mention making me feel less of a weirdo!

Whipsnade covers a huge area, which can be driven around (at some cost) or walked without too much difficulty. As the weather held out for us it was really quite pleasant turning each bend and waiting to see which creatures might be behind it.
For lunch we tucked into the biggest piles of fish and chips I’ve ever seen, before waddling off to see the penguins (also having fish for lunch) and to witness the park’s stunning views over the hillsides.
We’d arrived later in the day than most people, which was both good and bad. The ride on the adorable miniature steam train was slightly anticlimactic as most of the animals had gone to bed for the night (although a field full of wild lapwing cheered us up), but it did me we had a private audience with an extremely noisy gang of sealions, two of whom treated us to a most elaborate swimming display.
While I’ll always be fond of London Zoo, for its history and convenience, I’m glad that the larger animals are well catered for at Whipsnade. My only criticism might be the lack of shelter en route for any visitors not wanting to stump up and take their car around, as I imagine a rainy visit isn’t nearly as much fun.