Can I tell you one of my guilty pleasures? (Honestly, it’s something that I really enjoy doing but can make me feel like such a shit person. A true guilty pleasure.)
Sometimes I enjoy going to the zoo.
I know, I know. Zoos aren’t great. Animals shouldn’t be trapped for our viewing pleasure. They shouldn’t be forced to breed or do tricks or any of that nonsense. But oh how I love being able to actually get a glimpse of some of the amazing wild creatures that exist in our world up close and personal.
Luckily, I have finally found an animal park here in the UK which allows me to get my animal fix without feeling like so much of a twat: Howletts Animal Park.
Howletts is the smaller of the two animal parks belonging to the Aspinall Foundation. And while the other park, Port Lympne, is a bit more flashy with safari trucks and luxury hotel rooms, I think Howletts is the better of the two. And today I’m going to tell you why I love it so.
You are not guaranteed to see any animals.
What makes Howletts so good? Just look at the number one complaint that is brought up on review sites: “There is so much walking and you barely see any animals.”
Now that may seem a bit of a weird thing to highlight about a place, but it reveals two of the things I loved most about Howletts: the animals have large enclosures and they have constant access to private areas away from prying eyes.
Sure, this can suck for families with small kids who don’t handle the walking as well and whine every time they come across an empty exhibit, but I can’t help but think that it’s soooo much better for the animals. I know if I were trapped in an enclosure I’d want the freedom to hide from the world and enough space to really move around. Why not give the animals the same?
And really, if you take your time it’s not impossible to catch a glimpse of every animal in the park. Dave and I spent an entire day at Howletts when we visited, circling around the park twice, and by the end we were able to spot every animal. It especially helps if you catch the keepers during the feeding times. As with me at any event that involves food, they all make an appearance once dinner is being served.
The animals actually play.
I’ve never realised just how sad zoo animals look until I visited a park in which they were actually enjoying themselves. Usually they’re just laying there or pacing or staring off into space, but not at Howletts. Dave and I were able to observe a lot of action while we were there, but my two favourites were the western lowland gorillas and the african elephants.
The gorillas were a lot of fun. Two of them were playing what seemed to be their own version of keep away with a red ball within their enclosure. (One would pick it up and run with it tucked in its arm like a football while the other would chase it around the exhibit. It was crazy seeing them run so fast.) And there was a young lil gorilla who was tumbling all over the place and occasionally coming over to check out the people walking by.
And the elephants! Oh the elephants were definitely a highlight. It was a particularly hot day in July when Dave and I visited so the elephants were enjoying themselves in their little pool when we walked by. It was so fun watching them cool off, but also slightly worrying. At one point one of the young ones decided to walk into the water and it honestly looked like he couldn’t figure out his footing once inside. I wasn’t sure whether I was watching him enjoy a bath or observing him drown. So nervewracking! But luckily he managed to pull himself out eventually and all was well. (Do elephants drown? I mean, he kept his nose above water so he could breathe and Dave assured he the others would help pull him out if needed. But still, had my little heart worried for a second.)
Outside of the water, the elephants were also playing with the items in their enclosures. A tire got pushed around for a little bit by one and one empty jug that was attached to a fence actually got ripped off and thrown out of the enclosure!
They reintroduce animals back into the wild.
The other thing that I think is very interesting about Howletts is that the owner, Damian Aspinall, actually hates zoos and wants to see them done away with – apart from those who are actually doing conservation work.
As a result, Howletts aims to only features animals that are endangered or require extra assistance and actually works on releasing animals back into the wild, including those born in captivity. (I didn’t even realise the latter was possible). And there’s absolutely no animal shows incorporated into the park. You can attend one of their few daily talks, sure, but it only involves a keeper talking about the animal from outside of the enclosure. The animals are left to do as they please.
So while I don’t love that animals are unable to be out in their own habitats doing their own things, I am glad that I have found an “animal park” here in the UK that allows me to get my wild animal fix without feeling like such a shit person. If I’m going to pay money to see animals in enclosures, I definitely would prefer it to go to a place where they have plenty of room and privacy and my money will be used towards much needed conservation efforts.
How do you feel about zoos? Do you visit any regularly? Have a favourite? Let me know in the comments below! (Also, this post was obviously intended to go up three months ago. I’d definitely color those illustrations different today.)