George Clode spends the day at ZSL London Zoo
The quintessential day-trip to the zoo has changed drastically since I was a boy. Where once you would be lucky to spy a nanny goat in the undergrowth, or coax an otter out from its hutch, you are now able to have close encounters with wild animals from around the world.
This sea change in our zoo day experiences has been led by the Zoological Society of London, the educational charity founded in 1826. At its Regents Park site – London Zoo – the society has been expanding and rebranding over the past 15 years, placing greater emphasis on animal welfare and conservation.
Land of the Lions
But ‘experience’ is the name of the game here. On my recent trip to ZSL London Zoo I found myself getting up close and personal with huge Asiatic lions at the zoo’s newest exhibit, Land of the Lions.
The exhibit is based on Sasan Gir in India and features a recreation of the bustling high-street – complete with barbershop where visitors can learn more about lions’ manes – an authentic looking train station shared with lions, and a simulation of the Gir Forest.
The researchers clearly went to great lengths to combine an accurate portrayal of Sasan Gir with a natural habitat for the lions and a thrilling viewing platform for visitors.
And this seems to be the zoo’s modus operandi for every zone you visit, from the African rainforests of Gorilla Kingdom, to Fruit Bat Forest based on the island of Rodrigues, home to a colony of critically endangered Rodrigues fruit bats.
If insects are more your thing, you’re in luck. ‘In with the Spiders’ in a very close-quarters walk-through with some of the most exotic arachnids in the world, including the black widow, huntsman and giant bird-eating spiders.
This is not for the faint hearted, and if you were scarred by the 1990 horror film Arachnophobia I’d steer clear. The good news is that the zoo also runs the Friendly Spider Programme, an afternoon course helping arachnophobes conquer their fear.
The zookeepers and daily staff are incredibly knowledgeable and friendly. They are extremely focused on the welfare of the animals, while also eager to give visitors as wild an experience as possible.
On my visit they were kind enough to let me go behind the scenes during feeding time at the Reptile House to watch some of their most dangerous snakes eat mice. Suffice to say my nightmares have been well-fuelled for months to come.
There is a range of group sessions available, with topics covering how animals defend themselves from predators, how their bodies are adapted to their habitats, and how zoos work to conserve endangered species.
Daily events include talks by the Zoo Live Team about the lives of Sumatran tigers at Tiger Territory, Penguin Beach Live, and closer looks at some of the zoo’s largest fish.
Special events take place throughout the year, and for 2017 will include Safari in the City – an after-hours event of adventure, fine dining and entertainment in May – and the ZSL London Zoo Fire Walk in November.
• Open 10am-16.30 from February, and 10am-5pm from April
• Discounts are available for groups of more than 10 people, with special rates for youth groups
• ZSL London Zoo, Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4RY