(Half) a day in Paradise
Looking at animals is one thing but getting to touch them and feed them is something altogether different. Damion Roberts spends half a day doing just that at Paradise Wildlife Park in Broxbourne...
WHEN offered the opportunity to shadow staff at Paradise Wildlife Park one thought jumped to the forefront of my mind – to withdraw my fingers when hand-feeding large carnivores.
After all, you only have to type ‘zookeeper accidents’ into an online search engine to find out just what a dangerous profession this can be.
Then again, like most careers it all comes down to a matter of professionalism and Paradise seems to have that in abundance with staff like James Cork on hand to care for more than 400 animals and make the experience an enjoyable one for the thousands of visitors the Broxbourne-based park gets each week.
Paradise invited me down to join their close-knit family for a few hours one Saturday morning, but on arrival I found that I wasn’t the only person expecting to join a new family that afternoon as a wedding party was set to arrive later in the day with the engaged couple to wed at the snow leopards’ enclosure.
This is a place that prides itself on throwing its net wide to bring in as many visitors as possible!
My half-day with James began in the veterinary room with Dippie, a beautiful hand-reared two-year-old female red-nosed wallaby.
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Although she is healthy now, Dippie had a troubled start to life after falling out of her mother’s pouch when she was four months old and as a result had to be bottle fed every hour night and day throughout her formative months, making her the only hand-reared wallaby of the 14 on site.
I met Dippie in the vet’s room, a working area that allows the zoo to operate primarily on smaller animals on-site while the larger beasts are more likely to be taken off-site to a local practice or the Royal Veterinary College.
With her early setbacks now firmly behind her, Dippie is approaching her third year and, after many hours spent at the end of a bottle, is docile and human-friendly.
What is more, she loves to be made a fuss of and has a dog-like reflex of kicking out her legs when you tickle her belly.
After 10 minutes of human interaction, however, it seems she had seen enough and she was taken back to her enclosure as myself and my merry band of men – James, our photographer Luke Santilli and young film-makers Adam Lee and Connor Youngman – went on to prepare some food for a family of four tapirs.
Tapirs are large browsing mammals, with a similar body size to a pig, and Paradise has four of them: breeding pair Gabrielle and Tomoko, both aged 11, and their two sons Teddy, three, and Tiago, one.
In the wild tapirs roam in large areas, so Paradise aims to keep them busy throughout the day with plenty of food – a large tub of fresh fruit and vegetables supplemented by dry fruit – plus branches from a willow tree that are brought in to the pen for the family to strip bark and leaves from. Which, it has to be said, they do rather swiftly.
A dab hand with the knife in the kitchen at home, chopping pineapples and apples proved quite an easy job for yours truly but providing branches for them to play with proved a slightly different prospect.
You see, tapirs seem to enjoy the company of humans and they don’t mind being petted whilst eating from branches – there is even the opportunity to ‘tickle a tapir’ at the park.
But be warned: If you ever find yourself tickling one of these beautiful creatures while it is concentrating on pulling on branches, make sure you take into account the possibility of the branch whipping back full into your face!
After a spot of sweeping up straw in front of some rather camera-friendly camels I found myself in the Temple of Angkor, named after the Cambodian region that once served as the seat for the Khmer Empire but which at Paradise serves as a home for lizards, pythons, anacondas, beaded lizards, geckos and the rare Chinese alligators.
As part of its park experience, Paradise offers visitors the opportunity to get up close and personal with the reptiles, and for my visit I had the chance to make acquaintances with Bluey.
A six-year-old blue tongue skink from Australia, Bluey is so-called because he has a deep blue tongue which is, when fully extended, wider than the floor of its own mouth, and is used as a bluff mechanism in the wild to deter would be predators.
With tough scales and a flexible body, the skink is a large lizard with short limbs that are ideal for foraging in the undergrowth but their inoffensive nature makes them perfect for Paradise visitors to get to know intimately in one of the park’s many hands on shows.
Being hands-on at the park is a delightful experience that everyone should try at least once in their lifetime – but remember to keep those fingers firmly away from hungry mouths!
Steve Sampson, director of Paradise Wildlife Park.
‘This is a family business. We’ve owned it for 27 years. When we bought the zoo in 1984 it was classified as the worst zoo in Britain, and I’m happy to say it’s not the worst zoo any more.
‘We closed it for a year when we first bought it when zoo licensing came in and it re-opened in 1986. We’re coming into our 25th anniversary year and we have a number of events coming up to celebrate it.
‘We’re hosting the National Horticultural Conference here in September, and in June 2012 we’re hosting the National Zoo Conference.
‘My role is mainly on the marketing and business development side, and I have other family members who are involved.
‘My wife runs retail and catering, my sister is the animal park director, and my dad is involved in the daily operations. We have one non-family member who is involved as a director (Margaret Godchild) and she is financial director.
‘We’re very successful, and we’re the leading zoo in Europe for animal experiences.’
SEE FOR YOURSELF
If you would like to get to know Bluey or any of the other animals at the park, then you can search through the park’s many wildlife experiences at www.pwpark.com
What else is on offer?
It’s not just the animals that ensure children have a good time at Paradise. Have fun in one of five adventure playgrounds, at the daily shows and at the meet the keeper sessions. Or adults can relax in the beautiful gardens or enjoy a Starbucks Coffee while the kids monkey around in the Tumble Jungle or splash about in Paradise Lagoon paddling pool. Test your skills at the On Safari Adventure Golf, spot the dinosaurs from the Woodland Railway or visit the National Speedway Museum. Plus there are three places to eat on-site at Safari Sam’s Diner, the Tumble Jungle and the Tiger Tree Tops coffee retreat.