By Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History.
Driving through quiet country lanes, you arrive at the pretty picturesque village of Sparkwell, just 15 minutes outside of Plymouth. Here, almost hidden, is large car park. And this is where your trip to Dartmoor Zoo begins.
From the car park, you have to walk a few hundred metres to the main zoo. You are not alone on this walk. Animals in large enclosures are roaming on your right: the biggest rodent, the capybara; the weird trunked tapirs; and the big flightless birds, the rheas. The walk up the hill takes longer than you think – in a nice, relaxed way, because you lose yourself watching these beautiful animals.
The story of Dartmoor Zoo began in 2006, when Benjamin Mee and family took over the Dartmoor Wildlife Park in 2006. I won’t say too much, because there was a film made about it! The zoo has recently become a charity, and is working with the Museum, and Universities in the south west to promote research and conservation of wildlife.
Our guides around the zoo were friendly, approachable, and incredibly knowledgeable about all the animals at the zoo. The passion and pure love for the work they were doing shone from the moment we left for our special guided tour. Walking along, following our guide, you don’t get feel like you are in a zoo. It is extremely natural. We stop and are introduced to two very cute, high pitched short clawed otters. The older otter, fittingly named Attitude came to the fence, squeaking loudly calling at us. The younger otter, Jonsi, swiftly follows. The pair always run to the fence and squeak to the visitors, almost as if performing!
Dartmoor Zoo looks after the most number of big cats than any other zoo in the UK. We didn’t see the lynx (which was sleeping) or the cheetah (which was hiding). But this was forgotten very quickly when we came to the Siberian Tigers, Vladimir and Stripe. They are enormous! Siberian Tigers are the largest of the big cats, and are critically endangered, with just over 500 individuals left in the wild. To watch these beautiful animals stride softy across their enclosure, reminds us how fragile their lives are in the wild with poachers, hunters and habitat destruction. They may be the biggest cats alive today, but extinction doesn’t care about size.
In an enclosure opposite is the magnificent lioness, Josie. She moved close to the fence when Justin spoke, giving a clear view of her muscular legs: it was not hard to imagine a pride taking down a zebra. The zoo has plans to do a little match making with Josie. A large male lion, Jasiri lives in the enclosure adjacent to Josie, and we could see his big mane across the grass: he was checking Josie out. Matchmaking lions takes a lot of patience. A lot. The two need to get to know each other, be aware of each other’s presence, each other’s smells. There are plans within the next year to move Jasiri in with Josie. When we came round to his area, we didn’t notice that Jasiri had headed inside his hut feeding. Then something happened. Something that showed us how much the staff at Dartmoor Zoo care and know the animals, and how much the animals know the staff at the zoo. Justin called out for Jasiri. Remember, this big African lion is eating a nice juicy chunk of meat. They generally don’t leave that alone. Justin called for Jasiri. And Jasiri came. Slowly, his large legs plodded out of his hut, and moved slowly towards the back of the enclosure, and then made his way down to us. A truly magnificent animal.
Chincha, the stunning jaguar lay spread out on top of her climbing frame as we walked up to her. Justin called her name. And again his call was answered. Despite looking incredibly relaxed with all legs dangling across a large wooden beam, Chincha got up and climbed down. Gracefully, this powerful cat slowly padded towards us. We could see her short legs, perfect for an ambush predator. She walked passed us in silence.
We were extremely lucky with the next enclosure. It was feeding time for the Iberian wolves. These slender, elegant mammals are pack hunters. Here there are three wolves. In the wild, leader of the pack, the alpha, sends the lowest ranking wolf to assess the surroundings if there is food, or they have just made a kill. Any danger, and the lowest ranking one will be in trouble, but the alpha is safe. What was incredible was that although these wolves were captive animals, they did exactly that in their enclosure: the alpha sent in the lower ranking male to check it was safe. And he did. He ran around the fresh meat several times, and never once touched the food. The second rank came next and did the same thing, and both wolves waited until the alpha took her first bite before touching any of the food.
After lunch we gathered in the education room, where we were extremely lucky to see some incredible creatures up close. Here Kevin the red tailed boa, Kelloggs the corn snake, Django the western hognose snake, Dylan the Crested Gecko and Mango the blue tongued skink all came out. These are animals that people won’t see in this country. And here is where museums and zoos are similar (apart from the obvious!): people can get close to animals and really look at them, the details of their scales, the beautiful colours. When you see an animal in real life, you can really appreciate everything about it. And you can appreciate how wonderful nature is.
The entire day was, to quote one person in our group, ‘like being on safari’. We were watching animals so close, doing things they would do as if they were in the wild. Everything about Dartmoor Zoo is extremely natural. The animals look very happy and healthy, and the passion, and enthusiasm for the zoo staff is nothing but inspirational. They love what they do and the animals they care for. And they are making a difference.