From the South West’s largest collection of big cats to the cute and cuddly critters, there is something at Dartmoor Zoo to keep the whole family happy, says One Magazine’s Aiden
If you’ve seen the film ‘We Bought a Zoo’ starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, you may already be familiar with the Zoo’s history and witnessed the ups and downs, but for those who haven’t, it portrays the story of how one family strives to preserve the zoo and its animals while desperately trying to keep the gates open to the public. We were intrigued to find out the truth behind the story and meet the animals that made the film come to life.
So where is Dartmoor Zoo I hear you say? Situated in the village of Sparkwell near Plymton, the Zoo is found just off of the A38 at the Deep Lane Junction where there are signs for ‘Wildlife Park’.
From the outside Dartmoor Zoo looks quite understated, but size can be very misleading as we soon found out. Once we’d parked up we headed inside and were immediately met by a very curious Tapir who took it upon himself to come and inspect us before deciding he would rather go for a swim. Armed with our map, we followed the long drive up to the main visitor centre where we met the capybara, rheas, chickens and ducks as well as the pygmy goats. The visitor centre gave us a chance to note down the various keeper talks and feed times so we could make the most of our time and not miss out on anything we wanted to see. These daily talks give a real insight into each animal’s daily routine, personality and unique characteristics.
First on the agenda was the bear talk where we watched two European bears, Hayley and Fudge, who at 38 years (that’s 76 in bear years) are the oldest bears in captivity, having their morning feed. The keepers work hard to stimulate the animals constantly, giving them new scents and challenges to keep them healthy and active.
We then moved on to meet the new arrival, Jasiri. This handsome male lion at a whopping 220kg has been re-homed from Newquay Zoo and it is hoped he will be a new mate for Josie, the Zoo’s current lioness. Jasiri appeared to be fitting in very well and enjoying his new habitat, choosing to allow the public to see him before disappearing behind trees and woodland. We took the experience further opting for ‘the big cat experience’, where we were given behind the scenes access of the lion enclosure, letting us get up close and personal with these ferocious felines.
Next door to the African Lions live the Siberian tigers, Stripe and Vlad, who we watched enjoy their feed whilst also marking and scenting their enclosure. We learnt how unwanted aftershaves and perfumes are donated to the park regularly and are enjoyed by the most unlikely of animals for stimulation!
It’s not all big animals though! There is a large variety of small and cute characters that the park had to offer; cue some rather noisy otters, meerkats, raccoons, foxes and rabbits as well as some cheeky monkeys hanging around. The weather wasn’t quite on our side at this point, so we thought it was time to have a hands-on encounter with a range of reptiles and insects found in ‘Close Encounters’, next door to the Jaguar Restaurant which is filled with memorabilia from the film. Although I’m not a lover of creepy crawlies, I found it fascinating to learn about the different reptile families and how clever they are; camouflaging to blend in perfectly with their environment.
The Zoo even has a great education scheme, working with local colleges and universities to provide hands on workshops and experiences in order to help with their studies, as well events for children to come along and learn more too.
Although we were unlucky with the weather it certainly didn’t dampen our spirits, and we still had an action-packed family day out getting up close and personal to a wide range of unique and fascinating animals right here on our doorstep. Next time I’d love to try the Zookeeper experience – I would definitely recommend a visit!
For more information on Dartmoor Zoo, visit the website: www.dartmoorzoo.org.uk