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Last updated: April 14, 2012 12:15 am
Whipsnade Zoo came into existence in 1926, when the Zoological Society of London acquired 600 acres of Bedfordshire to give its most claustrophobically corralled Regent’s Park stock the freedom to stretch their legs, wings and flippers. Ever since, zoos everywhere have been trying to make captive animals at least a bit less captive. Bigger cages, fewer cages, the rebranding of zoos such as Whipsnade as “wildlife conservation parks” – there’s an ongoing drive to reduce the welfare divide between confined exhibit and gawping visitor. So it felt like a tipping point when I followed my wife and youngest daughter into our enclosure at the heart of Whipsnade – and heard the gate close behind us.
Suddenly we were on the wrong side of the wire. Free-roaming marsupials hopped out of the twilight to gaze at the new internees. Welcome to Planet of the Wallabies.
Lookout Lodge, which opened earlier this month, is a bold and enticing new venture: an overnight lock-in with 3,000 wild animals for company. We’d driven into Whipsnade as the last day visitors were driving out, then dawdled through a human-free realm dotted with camels and antelopes, before parking up in the panoramic dusk at the head of a five-county view from atop the Chiltern Downs. Our fellow lodgers, two dozen of them, were checking in: half were children rather younger than our daughter, who just scraped in below the adult cut-off limit of 14 and nearly managed to blag an age-inappropriate welcoming drink. (As a sideline that has a worrying ring, Whipsnade also hosts “adult-only zoo nights”.)
Then the chirpy, green-fleeced keepers led us through the wallabies and giant Patagonian rodents to our snug “luxury” cabin, one of eight nestled together in a little copse by the reindeer enclosure. Each was a tiny plank-lined half-pipe, with either double or twin beds and a convertible sofa. Not nearly enough room to swing a meerkat: inside it felt like we were hiding under an upturned rowing boat. With its bijou verandah and plump bedding, the lodge was wonderfully cosy – though personally I struggle with any definition of luxury that doesn’t encompass running water. The toilet block, with four showers to service up to 32 guests, lay 100 yards outside our enclosure.
Superficially, the hours ahead recalled your basic day at the zoo. Young keepers introduced us to Nicky the lowland bongo and Gerald the gemsbok, prefacing every eager pronouncement with the words “OK, guys”. Children were handed buckets of fruit and carrots to lob over fences. A lion set off rollercoaster shrieks by doing an MGM roar right up against the viewing window. Yet at the same time everything seemed very different: not just because our plucky little group was alone and heavily outnumbered by deadly beasts. And not just because personal keepers were on hand to answer questions and deliver a stream of fancy-that facts (Bactrian camels dehydrate their dung so efficiently that you can set light to it the minute it hits the ground).
“The animals are so much more kind of alive after the visitors leave,” said one of the keepers, trying to put her finger on the after-hours mood. By then we all knew what she meant. The trio of meerkats seemed approachably relaxed. Grace the baby bongo antelope surely wouldn’t have been so prancingly winsome had we been a thousand visitors pressing zoom lenses and sticky faces up to her fence. When my wife spotted a pair of wallabies duking it out on a hillside, fist to furry fist, our keeper told us the spectacle was a first, even for her. It was all so much more intimate. Gazing into the tiny wet eyes of a cement-skinned rhino, I could at least imagine a connection and suddenly understood why those with the means to do so routinely assemble personal menageries – exotic animals are just so much more compelling one-on-one. As my daughter later told me, some estimates suggest the global total of tigers in the wild is exceeded by those in private ownership in Texas alone.
Darkness fell and with it the temperature. We were herded into an old army truck and handed blankets, then delivered to the tiger enclosure for dinner (ours, not his). The tiger-side barbecue described in the itinerary had conjured images of Shere Khan taunted by man’s red fire but, as it was, we ate in a strip-lit cafeteria. There was not a Bactrian briquette in sight, though the lamb cutlets were excellent. How odd to sit in this wholesome venue with bottles of booze all over the formica. How much odder to look out into the blackness and wonder what it was hiding.
We found out on our torchlit walk back home. Flamingos hove luminously into view. A ghostly herd of sika deer thundered across their expansive paddock. Every sweep of our torches picked up a new pair of close-set carnivorous glints: cheetahs in their heated cave, a dozen wolves staring us out from a low hill. Things shrieked and rustled; the mood shifted from Night at the Museum to Jurassic Park. The keepers’ only fear was for the toads we might squash underfoot, but my wife chose this moment to remind me and my daughter of the time a wolf escaped when she was going round London Zoo with her parents.
The scale of our surroundings sharpened the experience. Whipsnade is one of the largest wildlife parks in Europe – the whole of London Zoo would fit in its rhino enclosure – but it felt even larger, and wilder, in the lonely dark: a safari worthy of the name. For me, at least, it was a reassurance to hear aircraft coming in to land at Luton, to squint at the sodium glare below us and think: down there is a place that some call Dunstable.
A bone-chilling drizzle set in and as we shivered back towards the Homo sapiens enclosure, I began to feel poorly adapted to my environment. The glow of infra-red heaters beckoned all around. If the zebras deserved them, why didn’t we? My restorative hot chocolate in the cafeteria just beyond the lodges came at a price: by the time I crouched into our little wooden den, both its proper beds were occupied by hibernating females. I unfolded the child-sized sofa and heard David Attenborough’s trademark whisper. “And if I’m very quiet and look very closely, I can just see the adult male making yet another sacrifice for his brood. It’s an act of extraordinary tenderness from such a powerful, majestic creature. He knows it’ll be another five years before his cub is ready to make her own way in the world, or 15 unless tuition fees are abolished and house prices collapse.”
Morning brought a cold dash to the showers and a warming full English breakfast. We had a couple of hours before the zoo opened and spent them in and out of the army truck, feeding stroppy chimps, bleary bears and perky, darting wolverines. As Lookout Lodge guests, we were entitled to stay on for the whole day and, in better weather, we would have. But there was a sense that after 15 hours our group might be succumbing to exotic wildlife fatigue – a sense articulated when a little voice piped up from the back of the truck with the final question: “Excuse me, do you have any hamsters here?”
Tim Moore’s latest book ‘You Are Awful (But I Like You): Travels Through Unloved Britain’ is published by Jonathan Cape
Tim Moore was a guest of the Zoological Society of London, which runs London and Whipsnade Zoos as well as carrying out conservation worldwide. Lookout Lodge is open from April to October, and costs from £115 per person, per night
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