We used to go there when I was a child. I vaguely remember elephant rides and wild wallabies, and being fascinated by the idea of the huge white lion carved into the chalk of the hillside, though by its nature this lion disappoints, in that you can’t actually see it properly, close up.
So a while ago, driving past alone in the middle of winter, I decided to call in and have a look.
A zoo in winter is an atmospheric place – especially that one, being so vast and open, and especially on a bitterly cold and seriously windy day.
I was delighted to find I could actually drive in to the place, and drive right around it. Certainly saved on tired feet and cold ears!
In the summer it must be nose to tail, but on my visit there was hardly anyone there! Loads of places to park along the inner roads, easy to stop wherever you catch sight of something you want to look at.
I stopped quite close to the entrance first, to get my bearings, investigate the food and shopping options, and go to the loo.
Then I strolled back towards the car and looked at the brown bears and cheetahs, both pacing round their adjacent enclosures, rummaging in the grass, sniffing the air, glancing fleetingly at the few visitors. What must they make of each other, all these various animals thrown together, with their no doubt strange smells and unfamiliar calls? What must they make of their predicament, and of us?
Cheetahs are full of mystery and aloofness. I could almost say they have ‘style’, but that would be an unforgivable anthropomorphism.
One walked right past me, keeping his mysterious thoughts to himself. I admired his delicate spots and bony shoulders and gently balanced tail.
I watched him stop in a corner, then turn round and continue to pace along the fence.
Just a few minutes in a zoo and I’m always back to the same profound dilemmas.
How dreadful, to cage these amazing creatures! What a torment for them, how sad to think of them innately longing for a freedom they’ve never know and could hardly understand! It’s cruel, it’s immoral! Open the gates and set them free immediately! Zoos have no place in the modern world!
Except a moment’s though reveals that clearly, they do.
These are just a few individuals of each species. At least they are alive, and cared for, and probably being carefully bred and managed to preserve genetic diversity, and possibly having their offspring reintroduced at some point into their natural habitat.
And the educational value! At least little children are marvelling at myriad exotic creatures they would otherwise only see in books (okay, or on the telly, but it’s not quite the same). At least they’re seeing and experiencing giraffes and emus and hippos and monkeys and penguins first hand!
You absolutely have to remain pro-zoo – yes, even when you look into the face of some solitary primate and see untold misery and confusion in his tired eyes!
On that windswept day, I drove slowly round the deserted animal park, stopping often, venturing out of the car repeatedly despite the bitter cold, and ruminating on the incongruity of elephants in the middle of a field in the British countryside, and on the extent to which we humans can consider ourselves as living in our natural habitat, surrounded as we most usually are by concrete, office blocks and traffic.
Still, I suppose our homes and cities are our natural environment now.
I watched a baby rhinoceros doing what can only be described as cavorting. He raced towards my car at one point, then raced away from it back to his mum.
I spent quite a while looking at ostriches, and thinking about dinosaurs.
I reached the hillside into which the elusive giant lion was no doubt still carved and sat in the car for a long spell, looking at the view. The wind at this point was so strong, it was virtually impossible to stand in it.
It was a strange and quiet and isolated place to be. I searched my mind for childhood memories but found only a few.
I lingered at a deserted café, watching the odd wallaby search around the empty outdoor tables for non-existent titbits. The idea of wallabies roaming (bouncing) around freely remains quite delightful. I’m sure I enjoyed them as much as an adult, as when I first saw them as a child.
Hours passed, as I didn’t want to miss any part of the zoo. Sometimes I walked, sometimes I drove. I watched the hippos sleeping in their quiet indoor pool, and was distracted by magpies and crows picking at the grass on the slopes nearby. I sat in the elephant house, watching the keepers do their thing, feeding and cleaning out their charges. I retraced my steps when I found I’d missed something, according to the map I was clutching. I counted bongos and tried to identify varieties of zebra.
Then I discovered the amazing drive-in safari section, with herds of various deer and antelope wandering freely between the man-made waterholes. Certainly a highlight and such a pleasure to be virtually the only car in there, it being way out of season. My own private safari park!
Eventually, exhausted, I headed for the best available restaurant and enjoyed a meal of chicken and rice, whilst looking out over enclosures full of bison and camels, and a lake featuring ducks and herons and flamingos.
Only one more vital stop to make before heading home – the gift shop!
Well, they might not have had many visitors that day, but they certainly made a fair bit of money out of me! The Whipsnade Zoo gift shop is one of the best places I know for unusual and realistic animal cuddly toys, of the type I am rather a connoisseur of. After inspecting the available options most carefully, I believe I purchased at least five, including a particularly realistic baby chimp, a golden lion tamarin monkey, an African hunting dog, and a warthog.
I assure you, though limited in its uses, a cuddly warthog is an absolutely ‘must-have’ item! Trust me on this!