In her quest to uncover exciting things to do in the city, Jenny Hayes gets hands on with some seriously scary carnivores at Wild Place
When it comes to animals, my feelings are simple. I adore them. Yes, I’m that person who crosses the road just to pat your dog, and tries to adopt your cat when it inadvertently wanders into my garden. Heck, I even talk to my goldfish! So when I found out I could work alongside the keepers at Wild Place as an animal ranger for the day, I got straight on the blower and booked myself in.
The morning of my adventure arrived, and I bounced out of bed fuelled with excitement. But what was that niggling in the pit of my stomach? Fear? No, that was too strong. Apprehension? Not even that. And then I recognised it as a tiny buzz of adrenalin which, when I stopped to think about it, was quite understandable. After all, I wasn’t heading out to tickle the tummies of domestic tabbies. Oh no. I’d be tangling with their much bigger brothers.
When I arrived at Wild Place, located not far from The Mall at Cribbs Causeway, animal manager Will and ranger Anna were quick to reassure me that they weren’t going to throw me straight into the big cat enclosure. Instead, I’d be starting the day mucking out the zebra and elands. Not, you’d think, the best of jobs, but I can tell you now the moment I stepped through the door market ‘Keepers Only’ and into the – admittedly rather ripe smelling – animal house, I realised that I had an exceptional day ahead of me.
This was a close encounter of an altogether unexpected kind. All that separated me from the iconic zebra and the pair of magnificent elands was a shoulder height fence. I was so close I could see every eyelash that fringed the elands’ big brown eyes, and only just managed to resist reaching out to stroke their velveteen coats. Fortunately, Anna was on hand to bring me back down to earth. She handed me a pitchfork and we got stuck into clearing the indoor area of old hay and other, less pleasant detritus, before serving them up some browse (tree branches, to you and me) to pull and nibble on when they fancied a snack. Impressed as I was by the elegant elands, I have to admit that my heart was truly taken with another of Wild Place’s herbivores – the okapi.
Keeper Toby once again led me away from the public route and into the inner sanctum, where I was able to feed lettuce to one of these beautiful animals through a wide-meshed fence. Initially, she assessed me carefully with intelligent dark eyes, before extending her finely boned face towards my hand to take the leaves. As she ate, I was able to really look at her extraordinary proportions and markings, and marvel at the myriad of colours her coat as it shone in the sunlight – gleaming mahogany one moment, deepest onyx the next. She was strange and beautiful enough to have been a creature of myth. Round the corner, however, the red river hogs were very different beasts. The size of an average pig, these guys had gruff, bearded faces that made them look like grouchy old men. And Toby’s warning to mind my fingers as I threw them root vegetables to snuffle out seemed to attest to the fact that these animals had a temper.
So too did some of the birds in Wild Place’s aviary. Currently closed to the public, it was a real treat to follow keeper Joe behind the scenes as he explained the rare and beautiful species I saw. Some jeered down at us from high branches, while others merely cocked inquisitive heads before returning to grooming their kaleidoscope plumages. It was at once wonderful and sad to see these creatures, some of which are now extinct in the wild, and an apt reminder of the fact that Wild Place is not just a visitor attraction, but also an important space for the breeding and conservation of some of the world’s most incredible animals.
Speaking of which, my day was about to pick up pace. Rapidly. It was time to feed the cheetahs, and that gentle fizz of adrenalin I’d felt in the morning now exploded into full on, knee-knocking intensity. So I was initially relieved to see two friendly faces in the form of Will and Anna. That was until Will informed me we’d be collecting the big cats’ lunch from the meat locker – a concept that, as a rather squeamish pescatarian, sounded distinctly unappetising to me.
But nothing was going to stand in the way of me and the cheetahs, so I boldly stepped inside, filled a large red bucket with chickens in varying states of rigamortis, and headed over to the paddock. At first glance it looked empty, but when I shook the bucket the heads of the three brothers pricked up out of the grass and six pairs of eyes locked onto me. My heart leapt, then started pounding in earnest as all three rose onto their long legs and loped towards me, gaining speed with every step. Will enticed them into the small holding pen beside the main enclosure, and it was then that I could admire them at close range. I’ve honestly never seen anything so beautiful.
One crouched down into a ball, making himself so small as he gazed up at me with huge golden eyes that, just for a moment, he looked like a harmless domestic cat. But when he suddenly sprang up and lunged at the fence, spraying gravel over me with a contemptuous snarl, I was sharply reminded that these were wild animals, full of awesome power and aggression. You’ll understand then, readers, why I entered the main enclosure with no small amount of trepidation. As Anna and I walked round throwing chickens into the long grass for the cheetahs to sniff out later, I couldn’t help stealing glances back at the pen to make sure they were still firmly inside.
So how do you follow that? With everyone’s favourite, of course – the ring-tailed lemurs. Who doesn’t love these little critters, with their bright yellow eyes and bandit-striped tails? After the thrill of meeting the cheetahs, these guys were exactly what I needed to calm down. As I discovered, there is almost nothing more pleasurable than sitting among them with a basket full of raw veggies and watching as they take the pieces from your hand, with endearing care and politeness, in their own furry fingers.
The Animal Ranger for the Day experience is the ultimate way for animal lovers to gain a more in-depth knowledge of some of the amazing animals that are at Wild Place. But even if you don’t fancy getting quite so hands on, there’s plenty for families to do on a day out. As well as seeing all the animals, relaxed and happy in their large and leafy enclosures, there is a picnic meadow complete with folly, woodland to wander through, and numerous activities for children of all ages. Fancy an adventure? Then head on over.