This is a bit about South Lakes Zoo - or, more properly, “South Lakes Safari Zoo”, formerly South Lakes Wild Animal Park. It is located just outside the small Cumbrian town of Dalton-in-Furness, on the edge of the English Lake District that attracts thousands of visitors every year.
I feel a little ambivalent about zoos and what-not. Of course, they do much valuable work these days, preserving threatened species - most of which would probably have been perfectly OK if we’d left them and their habitats alone in the first place. Zoos also increase our knowledge of the other beasts we share this fragile planet with. But, let’s be honest, zoos are primarily designed to entertain by exhibiting incarcerated creatures. I do get decidedly uncomfortable seeing some poor, diminished, helpless animal pacing up and down in its well-trodden path, looking forlorn and puzzled in a cage that is evidently far too small; can there be many sadder sights? On the other hand, if conditions are reasonable, it is a privilege to see some of these creatures – and I confess to enjoying a visit to a decent zoo - as long as I don’t have to do it too often.
The English Lake District seems an unlikely place to keep and exhibit wild animals. After all, it’s not exactly the warmest, or driest, part of the country – possibly that’s why lions, tigers, giraffes, rhinos etc decided sometime ago not to live there, voluntarily. Then, given all the wonderful, unique, countryside on the doorstep – which is, after all, the reason people visit the Lake District in the first place – why would anyone want to spend time at a zoo? Are there not zoos in other, less interesting, places? I guess some people can only stand so much natural beauty, and discover that walking over hills and taking in the scenery isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Then, when they also notice they’ve brought children with them who need less subtle visual stimulation and are unable to walk, unaided, further than their bedrooms, the presence of a nearby zoo begins to make a lot of sense.
Never having had any problem with my own hypocrisy, I’ve visited South Lakes Safari Zoo several times. As a zoologist of world renown, I should say that most of its inhabitants appear happy and to enjoy better conditions than some other zoos provide. There is also a useful miniature railway which carries children, as well as fat old blokes, with ease. However, a word of warning to disillusioned ramblers; you will still need to walk a lot. When I last visited (2014), I required a long lie-down and a small tonic at the end of the day. And, the place has ambitious expansion plans – so be warned.
In fact, South Lakes Safari Zoo has had a chequered history. In 1997, a 3-ton white rhino escaped (it burrowed under hut 3 and hid the sand in the roof). Cornered in a field, the poor creature was shot dead by the zoo owner. In 2014, a couple of capuchin monkeys went walkabout and, in addition, a number of sacred ibis were found enjoying themselves in the nearby countryside having, presumably, learned how to fly over the wire. Some of these birds were also shot. Far more seriously, and tragically, a young keeper was mauled by a Sumatran tiger in 2013; she died from her injuries shortly afterwards. That was – and is - simply horrific. I like to think that standards are high in the UK – and they probably are – but I don’t suppose any zoo is immune from escapes, serious accidents, or even breaches in safety.
The zoo’s owner, David S Gill, is a controversial figure who has been criticised by many for his views and behaviour. I’m sure you can read all about this elsewhere if you’re interested. At one time, he also owned a zoo in Australia. Yet he has created an undoubtedly successful visitor attraction in this slightly marginal and wind-swept part of Britain, founding the zoo on what had been waste ground in 1991 and opening its doors in 1994. Perhaps surprisingly, South Lakes Safari Zoo has often received the accolade of ‘the Lake District’s top attraction’ – though I have no idea how that is measured. And the zoo is heavily committed to conservation. Ironically, it has successfully bred the Sumatran tiger and the white rhino, both endangered species.
South Lakes Safari Zoo is not laid out as a series of boring, depressing, cages. There are interesting enclosures where the animals appear to enjoy a relative amount of reasonable space. A number of aerial walkways take you right over some of the pens so you can often get amazing views of the inmates, including bears, big cats, rhinos and giraffes. The ‘Australian Pathway’ conducts you through an enclosed area where the animals – including kangaroos, wallabies, emus and lemurs – are free to roam as you walk by. It is possible to get up close and personal with some of these creatures, though I do worry a little about whether that is fair; and you do wonder sometimes who is looking at whom and which ones should be locked up at night. Anyway, it’s a more fascinating place to visit than it might otherwise be.
But - it can get really busy and there could be more room for people. So, on a practical level, you might want to consider getting there early – parking and queues can both be a problem. On the upside, you will enjoy the close proximity of your fragrant and ever-courteous fellow humans, all of their offspring, and will have particular fun playing the exciting game of ‘jump over the careless pushchair.’ The facilities get mobbed – there is a restaurant but think about taking a picnic in a rucksack. Finally, check prices before you go; last time we went, children under 3 got in free, but everyone else paid full entry – which could be expensive for some families.
Ending with a little personal experience, the zoo was, unfortunately, once home to the Great Peeing Bat (magnachiroptera urinae) as well as a nasty little monkey that derived extreme pleasure from playing with itself in public. I hope it was a monkey. Then, during a subsequent visit, our ears were assaulted by a series of deep grunts, with a delay of several seconds between each one. It not being anywhere near Wimbledon, we sought the source of this curious noise and came upon a small crowd gathered round two extremely large tortoises engaged in what might be, euphemistically, referred to as a very friendly act. The (presumably) male tortoise appeared to be making heavy weather of the matter – though he could easily have been well over 100 years old (in which case, he was doing just fine) – and was being generously encouraged by the assembled throng. Covering the memsahib’s eyes, we rapidly moved onto feeding the penguins.
At this point, I’d normally add "find out more by visiting South Lakes Safari Zoo’s website", but at time of writing this merely seems to link to a Facebook page.