Feed a big cat? Meet the meerkats? Hang on, scratch a tapir? You heard: scratch a tapir. That’s how I found myself, at Paradise Wildlife Park in a small dwelling stable with a 250 kilo South American mammal (the biggest on that continent) and her 180 kilo boyfriend, and my niece Olivia and Jonny.
Jonny works for Paradise as Cover Keeper and is a fount of knowledge, not least about tapirs: “They are basically prehistoric, have been around for 250 million years and are related to horses and … hippos.”
It was easy to see why they have stuck around, they are not exactly armour-plated, although their skin is very thick, but they are tough and sort of rigid. In fact so much so that they can’t easily turn around and manoeuvre to scratch themselves, hence one of the kindest things a human can do is to scratch them almost through their skin – like scratching rubber matting!
“They especially like to be scratched on their lower back legs as that’s the point they cannot reach at all,” said Jonny.
Olivia was very taken with the animals, which also have incredibly thick necks. If a predator such as a big cat jumps on their back and attacks their neck, they just can’t get to them as they are so solid. I liked the tapirs very much too and it was awesome to share time with them.
Jonny was showing us round the 26-acre site at Paradise. The leading zoo in Europe, Paradise offers over 30 different exotic animal experiences and in spacious pens they have everything from zebras to white lions, cheetahs, bats and penguins. Even wolves.
Next we visited the Animal Resource Centre, presided over by world-renowned wildlife vet Dr John Lewis. Here the meals were being prepared and vegetables looked tasty and exotic, courtesy of Ocado, which supplies ‘bin ends’ for the animals.
They are not the only organisation to support the park in a charity-based way. Jonny explained: “Paradise costs £10,000 a day to run. We also have a sister park called Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent where there are no public visitors and it is run by the Wildlife Heritage Foundation, an animal conservation charity which is part of the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP).
Later we – my wife Chloe, daughter Pippa, 8, and nieces Hazel, 8, and Olivia, 10 went on a mini train, a motorised car-tour and generally did things little girls enjoy (eat ice-cream and look at the cute and cuddly furry smaller animals!)
It was a great day out for children: great, friendly staff and very professionally run and with an important conservational role in the world.
The park runs in tandem with schools in a big way via the Outreach Programme with everything from Key Stage 1 (Learn all about responsible pet ownership); Key Stages 2 and 3 (life cycles within the animal kingdom and conservation in the face of, eg, ivory poaching with superb elephant tusks on view, confiscated by and on loan from HM Customs), and a Key Stage 4 and beyond programme dealing with advanced marketing by the park itself and in terms of tourism and leisure, both locally and nationally.
Paradise Wildlife Park
White Stubbs Lane,
Visit the park online.