I’ve been saying that Chester Zoo is a great day out for the last twenty years without, actually… you know… going. So, a couple of weeks ago we woke up and said; ‘What a nice day. Let’s go to Chester Zoo!’.
I went as a schoolboy and had a marvellous time, although all I can remember is laughing at a monkey masturbating. As a thirteen-year-old, it was a profound moment that impacted on so many levels. It certainly confirmed Darwin’s theory of evolution, as I and my classmates felt an instant connection to our simian relative. We also figured that the caged onanist was rebelling against his captors, if in a peculiar way. Twenty-five years later, I visited with an extended family group and a tiny primate urinated gleefully on my niece. Well… ‘it could have been worse’ I said to her, though I decided not to explain how.
Chester Zoo rightly claims they are “…the UK’s number one charity zoo, with over 21,000 animals and 500 different species, including some of the most endangered species on the planet. With 1.9 million visitors every year, the zoo is an all-year round, full-day visitor attraction for everyone.”
It is brilliant, though don’t think it really offers fun for all the family. I suspect toddlers would be a little bored, although that doesn’t stop enthusiastic parents dragging them round.
‘Look at the elephant. Isn’t she lovely?’
‘I want ice-cream.’
‘It’s an Asian elephant.’
‘I want ice-cream.’
‘You can tell by its ears, and its brain can weight up to 5.4kg.’
‘I want ice-cream.’
‘You’ll get your bloody ice-cream later. Now look at the bloody elephant, you ungrateful brat! Do you know how much it cost to get in here?’
To be fair, children need to be exposed to the natural world at some time. I don’t know when the right time is. However, if you want to have a mellow viewing experience (i.e. avoiding lots of children) some days are better than others. Avoid the weekends, public holidays, and school holidays if you can, as it’s likely to be busy then. I would also avoid the first three weeks of July because it’s a popular destination for end of term trips for schools. Additionally, in order to peruse your favourite animals in a leisurely manner, I would advise going alone, or as a couple at most. There is a danger of being dragged around to stare at beasts you aren’t interested in.
The professional zookeepers are assisted by a lot of volunteers, and some are heroically helpful, especially with directions on such a massive site. It’s a labour of love for many animal lovers (and cheap labour for Chester Zoo). Unfortunately, ‘enthusiasm does not a barista make’ (as the old saying goes), and service in the café we went to was comically poor. We were given paper cups, which wasn’t very environmentally sound, so we requested the proper ceramic ones. However, for some reason, they were not for public use, even though there were several hundred of them stacked redundantly behind the counter.
Being a bold fellow, and expecting incompetence, I asked for a slice of chocolate fudge cake. There was a big tray on display, the portions already divided up. You can imagine my chagrin when, inevitably, the ignorant ninnyhammer behind the counter selected the smallest slice available to serve to me. Of course, if I had I complained, I would have sounded like a petulant child whining ‘she’s got more than me!’ So, I said nothing, but internally I seethed with righteous anger and resolved to smite him hip and thigh if the chance arose.
But that’s enough sniping; I had a brilliant day. It’s tough to pull out highlights, but top of the bunch for me was seeing a panther for the first time. We hung around the internal pen for a while and saw nothing, then wandered disconsolately outside, expecting less. The open section seemed equally empty until, with a muscular pounce, the sleekest, jet blackest, most beautiful big cat leapt out of the bushes. Eying the watching humans with disdain, it strode across the grass, hopped balletically over a stream, and disappeared into the undergrowth, muscles rippling under its glossy fur. It was a ‘wow’ moment.
I have a soft spot for chimpanzees and the zoo has a kind of ‘chimpanzee island’ with an attached indoor viewing area where you can see them quite close. I prefer the outdoor part as it looks more like their natural habitat. The indoor section has a concrete floor and steel climbing frame. The chimps don’t seem to mind their audience though. It was fascinating to see them grooming each other and bonding. And, just for the teenage boys watching, one indolent chimp chose to groom a neighbour by sticking a finger up its rectum. Outside we watched an infant, born only last year, climbing and playing. Its mother did enough to keep it safe from falling. A touching scene, and I supplied the appropriate ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’.
I’ve picked on two here, but there are lions, and tigers, and bears, O my! And meerkats of course. Don’t let the advertisements put you off, they are charming. At this juncture, I feel a temptation to list all the animals I saw, which wouldn’t be helpful as, as the blurb states, there are over 500 species. The birds were superb, and you could walk freely among many of them. A miner bird gave a cheery ‘hello’ to every visitor.
It would be wrong to write about Chester Zoo and not address the morality issue. The basic criticism is that zoos are cruel because they are, effectively, prisons. The animals are not roaming free in their spacious, natural habitats. The defence against this is that zoos are part of a conservation programme for endangered species. For example, the western chimpanzees at Chester are on the ‘red list’, under threat of extinction, and the zoo is successfully breeding them. Equally, some of the black rhinos I saw were flown out to Africa a few days later to establish them in the Akagera National Park in Rwanda (click for link to my blog).
Of course, not all the species in the zoo are endangered, so the conservation defence doesn’t always apply. One may argue that zoos study animals, and this can benefit the survival of both them and us. This may be true, but they could be studied in the wild. That said, the ‘wild’ is no Garden of Eden. I have seen wildebeest trying to cross the Mara river in Kenya; vultures waiting, lions hiding, crocodiles lurking and, in front of them, bloated wildebeest corpses floating; freedom comes at a price.
It’s a complex moral question; animal’s needs and rights differ. All of them deserve a level of dignity and care, some more than others, due to their cognitive and emotional capacities. I don’t know the full answer, but it’s not a simple, anthropomorphic, ‘well, how would you like it?’. Zoos do contribute to animal welfare, and if they sensitise our children to their animal cousins, that’s important too.
Entrance costs £29 if you book online but more if you just turn up on the day (April 2022 prices), so book in advance and save money on tickets (check Money Saving Expert for offers). It opens at 10.00 am and shuts at 5.00 pm, earlier in the winter. If it’s sunny, wear a hat and apply sun cream as you’ll be out in the open a lot. We spent six hours there and saw pretty much everything we wanted to. But there’s a lot to see and you’ll want to linger for a while at some enclosures, depending on your interests. Given the prices, it’s worth getting there early. In fairness, £29 isn’t a lot for a full day’s ‘entertainment’; if that’s the right word. To put it in context; a day ticket for Wimbledon costs £50 for a similar amount of time (I think that’s brilliant too). A Premier league football match costs around £50 for 90 minutes. The best seats in a theatre or at a gig are more expensive still.
Should you go?
For most people, I’d say yes. If you have a strong point of view on the ‘morality of zoos’ question, then maybe it’s not a day out for you. Your experience will be affected by the weather, so check the forecast and be prepared. TripAdvisor rated Chester as the 6th best zoo in the world, however you slice it, it’s a damn good zoo.
If you liked my blog, there’s every possibility that you’ll like the comic novel I’ve recently published. It certainly made me titter! As much as I enjoyed teaching, and respect those who do the job, there’s plenty to laugh at. I spent 30 years giggling 😊. It’s a bargain at £2.21 for the Kindle! Click on the image for the Amazon link.