Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:18 am
It seemed like a good idea. Extreme youngsters were visiting; they like animals don’t they – so what better than a trip to the zoo? Eschewing a more local option in favour of the much bigger and allegedly more betterer Chester Zoo, a 4-5 hour round trip, we set off with a song on our lips and all that stuff. Nobody recognised my tuneless rendition of “Daddy’s taking us to the zoo.” Maybe because it was tuneless.
Chester Zoo has quite a reputation and, with more than 2 million pre-pandemic visitors each year, is Britain’s most visited zoo. It is also, some say, the best. Chester Zoo covers 128 acres, has in excess of 20,000 animals (does that include ants?) and employs more than 1,000 people. Other zoos are available – see below. I confess to generally enjoying an occasional zoo visit, provided the animals don’t appear cramped or distressed. You may claim that detaining and caging any creature is cruel and morally wrong; the counter-argument is that many zoos nowadays do much to preserve species that man’s greed and thoughtlessness has endangered and that many animals are bred in captivity. Both positions are valid. The fact is that zoos exist and, personally, I reckon their work now does far more good than harm. In any event, the kids were not the only ones looking forward to the visit.
To anyone fortunate enough to enjoy much of Britain’s countryside and heritage for free, or to have unlimited visits to larger historic sites included in an annual membership subscription (see which is the best heritage organisation to join) paying more than a few quid to get into anything is a hard concept to grasp. So when I learned that the entry to Chester Zoo would cost our party of four adults and three small children about £160, I was tearfully grateful that someone else was paying. For comparison, based on current data (£ per pint, pints per session and No thereof), it would take me about ten weeks to drink the equivalent in value of Special Belly Grower ale down at the Old Rupturede Ducke. Therefore, supporting your local pub is cheaper than going to the zoo. Chester is not the most expensive wildlife encounter in Britain, but it is clearly far from a cheap family day out. Pile on the cost of food, snacks, buggy hire and anything you feel compelled to buy from the giftshop (cuddly snakes, rhinos and so on) and it becomes even more of an exceptional event. Many people will not be able to afford it, which means that children who would probably most benefit from the experience, let alone adore it, must be missing out.
The objective of visiting a zoo is to see animals. Obviously. But it takes particularly careful planning to see the greatest possible number of them while you are there. Timing is everything. So, we went in January, in the middle of winter, when it is cold and daylight hours are short. In addition, Chester, for the benefit of the overseas reader, is in north-west England, a notoriously soggy and chilly part of the country at the best of times. Unlike, say, sub-Saharan Africa. Whilst the day of our visit was far from the storm-lashed arctic experience it might have been, no one should have been surprised that most sensible animals appeared to be snuggled under their duvets, or maybe indoors playing on the Xbox. The viewing rate was further reduced by a rumour of avian flu that forced the closure of walk-through bird enclosures. In addition, some precautions against Covid-19 were in place, so parts of the complex were shut. I would not complain about those precautions and, frankly, was pleased that most animals were practising social distancing – especially the Big Cats. Even so, the value of our visit, expressed as the ratio of animals seen to cost, could have been considerably better. That said, zoos, like all attractions, have suffered financial losses during the pandemic, must be hideously expensive to maintain, and it was good to see as many people there as we did. Some, sporting curiously orange complexions, were almost as interesting as the captive creatures. Glancing at them furtively, I wondered whether Trump supporters were being secretly bred in the Wirral – hopefully for export. Or perhaps sun bed establishments in the region have being enjoying good trade at the expense of resorts in Spain or Turkey.
‘‘Apps’ are everywhere these days. “Download our app, take up memory on your mobile phone, freely hand over your personal details and save us wasting good money on adequate customer service.” Last year, we were rudely refused service in the Worcester branch of Wetherspoons because we simply wanted to order food in person; I suppose it serves us right for going there (never again) in the first place. Apps are the thing; I shouldn’t be surprised if undertakers had them. Chester Zoo certainly has and it seems this is the way to find your way round, because we couldn’t see anywhere to buy a map. A decent map of a large attraction is, I suggest, an essential tool in making the most of your visit. If you don’t want to use an attraction’s app, but still quaintly insist on knowing where you are and finding your way around, you have to take a photo of a map at the entrance (assuming that option is available) – which is what we did at Chester. Given the limitation of screen size, however, it was less than ideal.
The apparent absence of animals from many enclosures did not prevent us enjoying those that decided to say hello. And, as you can see from the photographs, Chester Zoo keeps many traditional favourites. It has also invested heavily in some innovative artificial environments, including an island area that aims to replicate tropical South East Asia, and which features a river boat trip. Even with invisible animals, it is impressive; but the boat trip was closed.
I enjoyed watching the animals we met. Staring into the terrifying, beautiful, green eyes of a tiger jealously guarding the remains of a rabbit was quite an experience. I was also impressed that the rhino, powerful and prehistoric, politely refrained from mentioning the truly awful smell that someone had made in his home. A highlight, though, had to be the butterfly house, in which delicate, highly coloured, creatures gently fluttered about your head in the humid atmosphere and my camera lens steamed up. Kids loved it; it held their attention in a way that other enclosures – particularly the empty ones, failed to do. Sometimes, of course, patience is required. I leaned on a barrier, gazing at a sleek cheetah pacing moodily up and down a worn path; after a short while, I noticed that the rest of our group were somewhere in the distance. This sort of thing kept happening; it is a curious irony, I thought, that children often don’t stand still long enough to observe the creatures they have come to see. Perhaps zoos aren’t for youngsters after all; perhaps it is a feature of our instant gratification, short attention span, society.
It not being ideal weather for a picnic, we had planned to eat at one of Chester Zoo’s catering outlets. Since several of these were closed, choice was limited. Inside, they were heaving with a variety of fellow Homo Sapiens, plus a smattering of other primates (some of them orange). We ended up at June’s Food Court, which served healthy options like batter with a touch of fish, chips, burgers, pizzas and fizzy drinks. Despite the long queues, it was highly efficient – and I didn’t need to use an app. The fish and chips was surprisingly horrible, however, and a lack of table space meant we had to eat outside anyway, doing battle with aggressive, greedy, seagulls. We won, but it was a close thing.
For more information about Chester Zoo, here a link to its website.
We mentioned other zoos are available and here is a selection. Click or tap a name to reach the website. I wouldn’t over-rely on the accuracy of the stats if I were you, but the first three charge more than Chester for entry. Some places have a bewildering number of price options, some of which (like rail tickets) seem designed to confuse, whilst others, like different prices at different times of the year, make sense. Message to railway and zoo operators: always make it easy for people to buy from you.
|What||Where||Size (Acres)||No of animals|
|Longleat Safari Park||Wiltshire||9,000||500|
|ZSL London Zoo||Regent’s Park||36||14,900|
|Cotswold Wildlife Park||Oxfordshire||160||1,500|