In the Devon countryside, there is a house.
It sits at the top of a long, narrow drive, on the side of a hill; just outside the village of Sparkwell, looking across fields and hills and (this weekend, at least) banks of low-lying cloud, mist and drizzle.
And living in the garden of this house, there are animals.
Lions, tigers and bears, to be precise.
Because this house is at the heart of Dartmoor Zoological Park.
You may well have heard of it – even if you think you haven’t.
I fell in love with the story of the zoo when I read its owner, Benjamin Mee’s book last year, and this played a large part in our rolling up to Dartmoor in the middle of a not-so-gentle April shower yesterday, wellies and all. I’m glad we did.
Even in the rain, the atmosphere is lovely: some of the animals may be ensconced in their houses (lynx, I’m looking squarely at you. Don’t think I didn’t see you in the doorway) but the keepers are incredibly friendly and approachable and even the drizzle’s not enough to put Josie the lion off her food.
We arrived just in time to see her being fed, as two of the big cat keepers (with two “keepers for a day” assisting) hung a sack filled with her food in a tree in her enclosure. It lasted about a minute and a half before she’d torn down the meat pinata and carried her lunch off to the back of her space to eat in peace.
The keepers explained that she’s only fed every other day in an attempt to keep her lifestyle as close as it can possibly be to the one she would have in the wild – so rain or not, we were pretty lucky.
The rain didn’t seem to bother the newly-introduced Iberian wolves, either, one of whom was asleep at the back of their enclosure.
Having read We Bought A Zoo, one of the animals I really did want to see was Sovereign, the park’s jaguar.
I don’t know a huge amount about jaguars – except that they’re clever. Having seen him wandering around his enclosure, looking straight back at us, I’m glad there was a barrier and a nice big moat between us. Yes. To say he’s intimidating is an understatement.
It isn’t all about the big name animals at Dartmoor – although between the bears and the big cats, there are plenty. My little boy was especially taken with the peacock and (naturally) with the meerkats, whose last feed we just managed to catch at the end of the day. I’m always a sucker for the otters, and a soft touch for a capybara.
One of my favourite things about the day was the end of Westcountry Falconry’s display, held on the front lawn of the house. We missed most of it – but arrived just in time to meet Wendy the Striated Caracara, who trotted along behind her handler when he let her out of her aviary and immediately went to look under the picnic tables in case there was anything worth her time there. Anyone who doesn’t think birds have a personality clearly hasn’t met Wendy.
Education is a big feature of the zoo’s event programme, and this (plus the staff’s love for what they do) comes across in the “Close Encounters” sessions, when some of the zoo’s smaller residents come out to play.
We got to meet several of the reptiles, including a very inquisitive corn snake – and, after at least five minutes of dithering about it, even Small Boy was brave enough to stroke them all (and boy, did he feel proud of himself afterwards).
Dartmoor Zoo is an incredible place, with an incredible story. It’s easy to understand how someone could fall in love with it, and with the animals.
The staff and keepers go out of their way to bring all the animals’ personalities to the fore: you aren’t just watching A Lion, you’re watching Josie, who loves her food but misses her mate, Solomon, who recently died.
You aren’t just watching a family of meerkats, you’re watching a pair with two babies who were born in mid-December (there were 3, but one of them contracted pneumonia and didn’t make it).
Likewise, Kevin the boa constrictor couldn’t take part in the “Close Encounters” talk because he was wrapped around his tree and had made it clear in the most snake-like way possible that no power on this earth was going to get him to unwrap himself, thankyouverymuch. They’re all treated as individuals and visitors are encouraged to remember that’s what they are.
If you can, go. You won’t regret it, and we’ll be going back – whether it’s raining or not.
If you can’t go, read the book. Think about donating, as it’s places like this which help to safeguard some of the world’s most endangered animals, and teach the next generation about the world around us. Long may they remain.