Animals are wonderful things. Incredibly varied and often a mascot and representative of their native part of the world.
The UK, and particularly England, is extremely limited in the amount of wildlife you will see when out and about. Whilst there are commonly pheasants, and less commonly badgers, deer and foxes in the countryside, and birds of prey including red kites and kestrels patrol the skies, when viewed alongside the fauna that play host in other continents, and even other parts of Europe, the options are limited.
It’s perhaps not surprising then that zoos and animal sanctuaries are so popular in the UK. ZSL (the Zoological Society of London), which owns both Whipsnade and London Zoos, are a charity which homes, breeds and looks after what is likely the UK’s largest collection of diverse animals.
Split into African, Asian and European animals, the variety that can be seen at Whipsnade Zoo, in Buckinghamshire, is huge. This includes, but is not limited to, alpacas and goats in petting areas, bugs and insects in the butterfly house, tropical and birds of prey, and the likes of the otherworldly rhinos, elephants, giraffes and big cats in their huge, open enclosures, built to mirror their natural habitats. Not to be overlooked, smaller enclosures house cheeky monkeys, playful red pandas, brown bears and flamingos. Not all in one, of course.
Whilst it’s possible to see these animals in zoos across the world, what Whipsnade has perfected is a unique opportunity to share the same space (okay, so not EXACTLY the same space…) with the animals for a night with their on-site camping, or more accurately ‘glamping’ pods. This offers visitors the ultimate sleepover.
A rhino in its enclosure
Opposite the surprisingly quiet white rhino enclosure, and next to the surprisingly noisy reindeer enclosure, are a number of wooden pods for ‘nature night camping’. Facing away from the animals, just a few metres from the pods, are some incredible open views over the English countryside. Though once the pod door is shut, you could be anywhere, as apart from a surreal, low light trip to the bathroom stalls, or seeking out the staff available thorough the night as required, these pods are a fantastic, modern take on traditional camping. Though a classic, pitched tent is also an option.
As part of the overnight stays, and after the impressive and substantive buffet on offer at the zoo’s main restaurant, zookeepers offer a flashlight-led animal tracking tour, complete with information and stories of the history, home and protection of some of the animals. These animals, particularly those lesser seen during daylight hours, might include the likes of the prides of lions, who take a particular interest in the backlit humans on the other side of the glass.
A bench looking out from near the camping pods over the English countryside
The pods are warm and comfortable, and night are largely peaceful, though having an alarm call from the roar of a lion’s pride is as exhilarating as it is awakening. This comfort is fortunate for those who are resting up in preparation for further activities the following day. In our case, this was to be ‘Keepers for a Day’.
Led by a couple of the expert ZSL staff, volunteering as a ‘Keeper for the Day’ involves a multitude of activities, engaging with different animals across the zoo. This includes, feeding some of the animals by hand (such as the rhinos), and some from afar (sensibly, such as with the lynxes), creating enrichment toys and preparing food for the monkeys and bears, putting food out to attract the bugs in the butterfly house, and even mucking out the deer. It’s a varied and busy day to say the least, but provides a unique insight into just how much is needed to ensure a safe and happy habitat for these incredible animals.
Feeding the lynx.. this time, fortunately, from a distance
The animals at the zoo are clearly happy and well looked after, even by the high standards seen in most, if not all of the zoos and sanctuaries across the UK. Whilst some will always think of zoos as unnatural environments for some of these animals, ZSL Whipsnade really goes above and beyond. They offer visitors an interesting and educational insight into wildlife that otherwise wouldn’t be near the shores of the UK, whilst at the same time ensuring that these incredible creatures live safe, happy and fulfilled lives.
Where is Whipsnade Zoo?
Learn more about ZSL Whipsnade Zoo (which is due to re-open on 15 June 2020) by planning a visit, or you can support them by either donating or sponsoring/adopting an animal. You can learn more by visiting their website, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts.
Note: Details in this feature are based on a trip from 2019. Due to the global situation and impact of social distancing measures having likely changed working practices in 2020, it is advised to check what is offered as part of their experience packages to avoid disappointment. Current safety measures can be found on their website by clicking here.
by Tom McBeth & Natasha Bryan