Some way back in the depths of time I seem to remember that we all decided zoos were evil and, to be fair, there were some that were. A bunch of nefarious shysters were determined to coin it in by jetting poor animals into the country in conditions worse even than a Ryanair flight and holing them up in tiny cages with barely enough food and very little to do – also similar to a Ryanair flight.
That’s generally not the case anymore, with the stinking fleapits of old now replaced by shiny new zoos, safari parks and euphemistically-titled ‘wild animal centres’ (for those still uneasy with the ‘z word’). In fact, the most cramped and unpleasant zoo you’re likely to find nowadays is the setting for CBeebies’ 64 Zoo Lane, where all the animals seem to spend the night in the same 10 foot square enclosure – certainly a risky strategy employed by the keepers there.
Conservation and education are the watchwords at today’s zoos – kids and parents alike are fascinated by the exotic animals and are taught about their natural home, why they’re endangered and how they can help. South Lakes Safari Zoo is no exception, with a plethora of initiatives running to help preserve some of the most majestic animals in the world.
The first thing to say is that it is flaming miles from anywhere – stuck out on the Lakes Peninsulas (another euphemism – it’s a fair drive from the traditional tourist hotspots in the Lake District) in Cumbria. However, that needs to be quickly followed by assuring you that it is definitely worth the detour. The entrance is insalubrious, with an untidy carpark just a short drive out of Dalton-in-Furness, but once you step through the doors and take in your first glimpse of a mighty giraffe, even this jaded, cynical man in his mid-30s started to feel the excitement building.
This is my first full week off work of the year, after our earlier attempt to take advantage of my brother’s empty Manchester flat was scuppered by chicken pox, so we decided to visit somewhere where 18 month-old Elsa could practice her burgeoning repertoire of animal noises. She “ooh-ahh”ed at the monkeys, “ssssssssss”ed at the snake and, although she will always be a winner in my eyes, I have to admit she somewhat lost the roaring competition with the lion on this occasion.
We’d asked around about which zoos to visit and South Lakes came highly recommended by friends, each citing how close you can find yourself to these exotic beasts. They weren’t wrong – the lion boomed just metres away from us, an experience both petrifying and exhilarating in equal measure, the penguins waddled in our general direction and we actually fed the giraffes! With our hands! Well, with leaves that we held in our hands. Since Elsa was born I’ve wanted to introduce her to a giraffe, certain that it would blow her tiny mind, and I wasn’t wrong. In fact, even though I knew what to expect, I was a little overwhelmed by the sheer size of the species.
Elsa loved it, she was transfixed by pretty much everything she saw – just as I’d hoped that she would be. She probably won’t remember it when she’s older but she certainly had a great time, is inseparable from the fluffy giraffe toy we bought her and has since been practising her animal noises with added fervour. Next time we go she’ll give that lion a run for his money. I just hope he doesn’t have to swallow his pride.
Disclaimer: No payment was received for this independent review of South Lakes Safari Zoo.