Just another day in Paradise

Feeding the tigers may be all in a day's work for zoo keepers but what about magazine editors? Clare Bourke got the experience of a lifetime at Paradise Wildlife Park

SEEING a lion or tiger through two sets of fences is one thing, but getting so close that you could reach out and touch them is something else altogether. Paradise Wildlife Park offers the chance to do just that - to get up close and personal with some of the most dangerous animals in the world.Animal experiences are a great way to break down barriers - quite literally - and see the animals close up, guided by someone who works with them day in and day out. From overcoming your phobia by holding a tarantula or snake to feeding the big cats, take your pick. With that in mind, my husband Chris, 11-year-old daughter Abigail and I decided to see for ourselves and headed up the A10 to Broxbourne and straight to Paradise.On arrival we were greeted by senior keeper Brian Badger, who has been at the wildlife park for 10 years. He was the perfect person to show us the ropes, starting with how to stay safe. Brian explained these at the beginning of the tour - such as not putting fingers through bars and listening carefully to his instructions at all times - and repeated these at every enclosure we visited.With all this in mind and a solemn nod from Abi to confirm she had listened carefully, we headed off to pay a visit to wolves Misha and Tatra. It was clear they knew Brian very well - a couple of calls from him and they were racing over to visit us. Opening the outer door, we were ushered into the small entrance way used by keepers to get into the main enclosure as Brian showed Abi how to stroke the wolves safely through the single fence.Not far away from the wolves is the lion enclosure where Turkana and Mana were ready to greet us. Unlocking the gate to let us into the space between the outer and inner fences, Brian called to the lions who instantly came over to greet us. It was an exhilarating experience watching Abi, guided by Brian, get close to the fence to meet both lions - it may sound strange but when you are standing no more than half a foot away from them, you realise just how big they really are.In our eagerness to get to the tigers, we packed in several animals in about half an hour - watching the tapirs being fed, seeing the penguins adjust to their new enclosure, watching the meerkats watching us and marvelling at the slow progress of a sloth. Then it was on to more big cats - the majestic jaguars Aries and Athena, the cheeky looking snow leopards Aron and Kush and the newly arrived beautiful white lions Thabo, Kya and Bisa. As we visited each enclosure Brian told us about their habits, their personality and their life history, allowing us an insight into these magnificent creatures.As Brian led the way to the finale, the tiger enclosure, which is currently being extended, Rocky, a ten-year-old Bengal tiger, saw us coming and started craning his neck to get a better view. We were guided inside the safety fence so there was just one piece of mesh separating us from Rocky and white tiger Narnia as the pair greeted Brian with obvious devotion.Just as we were marvelling at the beauty and size of the two big cats, Brian produced a bucket of steak and chicken legs and suddenly it was feeding time. Unfortunately for Abi there is an age limit of 16 for feeding the big cats and she was not allowed to take part so it was just Chris and I. Following a serious safety talk from Brian, I clasped a piece of meat loosely in a fist with an end sticking out for Rocky to grab and put my hand to the fence. My heart was beating fast as I watched him carefully take the meat and wolf it down. It was an amazing feeling as I fed him again and then Narnia, watching their huge paws against the fence as they stretched up for their treat.After this trip I don't know how I will go back to normal zoo visits but I will certainly be paying another visit to Paradise. As Abi excitedly declared several times during our visit, 'This is the best zoo in the world!' And while I haven't been to every zoo in the world, as far as experiences go, I can safely say this one will take a lot of beating.WIN An animal experience at Paradise Wildlife ParkOPENING TIMESParadise Wildlife Park is open all year round:March 1-October 31, 9.30am-6pmNovember 1-February 28, 10am-5pm

Paradise Wildlife ParkWhite Stubbs LaneBroxbourne EN10 7QA01992 470490www.pwpark.com