When talking about our upcoming trip to Jersey, a colleague of my husband’s told him that we must go to Jersey Zoo. Eager to visit some of the island’s main tourist attractions yet keen to remain out in the fresh air of a sunny September Saturday afternoon, we headed towards Trinity in Jersey’s north-east to find out what all the fuss was about.
I will be quite honest – having grown up with Bristol Zoo on my doorstep ( we had visited with Roo just the week before) and having also visited Longleat Safari Park and London Zoo on several occasions, that particular Saturday I was expecting a pleasant and informative afternoon out but no more than that. We left Durrell Wildlife Park later that day having experienced something entirely new – a day which had not only delighted our animal mad daughter but which also opened our own eyes that little bit wider to the wild world around us and which easily qualified for the most memorable and enjoyable wildlife encounter I have ever had with animals in captivity. It turned out that Durrell Wildlife Park is worth a visit to Jersey for in its own right.
Durrell Wildlife Park is named in honour of its founder – wildlife conservationist and much loved author Gerald Durrell. With his books the favourites of many children (perhaps most well-known is ‘My Family and Other Animals’) Gerald Durrell was an important champion of passing on a deeply ingrained love and appreciation of nature to future generations – something which Durrell Wildlife Park personifies.
One of the lovely things about Durrell Wildlife Park is its very natural feel. The park is set in 33 acres of beautiful Jersey countryside and a large proportion of its 120 species of resident animals and birds get to enjoy the landscape first hand. When we first arrived at Durrell Wildlife Park we were keen to take Roo to visit the Tamarin Woods where the endangered Golden Lion Tamarins romp through the open woodland, often, we were told, within a meter or so of passing visitors and with nothing to stop them other than the promise of dinner from either sitting on your head (not encouraged!) or nipping off to visit the tortoises! It took us a while to work out why Roo keeps saying ‘monkey’ in a delighted voice every time we take a woodland walk -turns out she’s expecting the lustrous, flame-furred just-off-a-hair-conditioner advert variety to come bounding out the tree top of any passing oak.
It turned out though that all the animals and birds at Durrell Wildlife Park have plenty of space to enjoy and in an incredibly natural feeling environment. From the huge sunken wetland for the flamingos to the floor-to-ceiling spacious reptile enclosures, the animals felt like they were well housed and with their welfare and comfort firmly in mind. Despite this though, we were surprised at just how many close encounters we had and the detail with which we were able to observe Durrell ‘s residents – for instance, I’m not sure I have ever personally seen a snake yawn before (they have very large mouths) and it was refreshing not to have to play the ‘it’s-under-the-log-in-the-corner-honest’ or the ‘it-must-be-sleeping’ game with our disappointed toddler! It was special to be able to spend quality time watching each animal and observing its habits and characteristics, rather than simply ticking them off on a mental list and being shuffled along to the next ‘exhibit’.
The aviaries were particularly impressive, decked out to emulate the south-east Asian tropical forest that their residents originated from. We were able to wheel Roo’s pushchair right through the middle of this micro-environment, jewel coloured birds winging past us or perching on branches to show off their exotic plumage. Outside, we came up close and personal with the Sulawesi Crested Black Macaques and were entertained for some time by the hilarious antics of their younger members who were chasing each other energetically all round their outdoor enclosure, flashing their red bottoms at us as they went!
Perhaps most memorable though were the lemurs. Chattering away to each other with what can best be described as a mew so pathetic it would put the meekest of kittens to shame, the ring-tailed lemurs proved a sociable bunch. Whether hanging out just the other side of the thin wire that marked their designated plot of the park, preening themselves endlessly on tree-stumps or ganging up on the top of a shed looking every bit like something out of West Side Story, it is hard to believe that these endearing creatures are not actually from Jersey, so at ease are they in their idyllic setting. Likewise their distinctive compatriot and fellow Durrell roommate, the Black and White Ruffled Lemur, who we witnessed crashing through the tree tops at Durrell Wildlife Park with abandon and the aptly named Aleotran Gentle Lemurs who gambled through the grass a meter from the raised boardwalk around the edge of their enclosure – both critically endangered in Madagascar, where the latter of the lemurs is being hunted into extinction for meat and the former are threatened by the expanding and impoverished human population of the island who are destroying their natural habitat.
My favourite inhabitants at Durrell, if I am forced to pick one, had to be the Orangutans. Housed on their own island with plenty of aerial ropeways and indoor retreat, these beautiful apes had us all spellbound. I’m not sure if it was the pregnancy hormones running wild but I even found myself tearing up at the tenderness of expression on one orangutan mothers’ face as she cradled her baby. Such wise, human and yet solemn faces, seen so close up is not something I had been fortunate enough to experience before and I couldn’t help thinking that their solemnity reflected the gravity of their situation in the wild. Faced with the destruction of their forest habitat in Sumatra, Orangutans face extinction in the immediate future.
As with all the creatures homed at Durrell, the underlying reason for their residence there is gently but repeatedly reinforced with information boards and interactive exhibits that appeal to both kids and adults. The staff and volunteers are also incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about the animals they nurture at Durrell and their more distant relatives. This may be a tourist attraction but it is primarily a conservation project where the preservation and breeding of endangered species in captivity and the educational force that the park provides is only a small part of Durrell’s overarching mission.
From field research and vocational training to study programmes for conservationists from at-risk countries or the fact that from every £1 spent at the park 81p is spent directly on saving species from extinction, you are made aware that Durrell is not a static entity but supporting an ongoing mission to attempt to save our natural world before it is too late. This includes our immediate environment, with resident otters and a bird hide to watch our native winged friends reminding us of the richness of fauna surrounding us every day. As if in an attempt to remind us of the worst case scenario should we forget our natural heritage, the lonely skeleton of a dodo – one of only four in the world – watches forlornly over you from its glass case at the park exit.
Of course, at only just under two years old, Roo was oblivious to the more serious messages at the park but was very, very keen on the up-close animal encounters the first class enclosures offered. We had problems trying to stop her from squealing too loudly with delight when a meerkat came nose-to-nose with her through the glass and we had to revisit the orangutans several times.She went a little quiet when we visited the gorillas – even I hadn’t quite appreciated just how colossally and intimidatingly massive these fascinating giant relatives of ours are up-close! The entire park is possible with a pushchair too, there are baby changing facilities and the wide, level paths make it easy toddling. If both entertaining your children as well as enthusing them with a passion for the natural world sounds good to you, then I can thoroughly recommend Durrell Wildlife Park as a great day out.
We made the mistake of leaving our visit until mid-afternoon. It turned out there was far more to see at Durrell than we had anticipated and certainly more than we could fit into our few hours or this blog post for that matter! Being there during the late afternoon did mean though that we saw a lot of the animals having their evening feed. The website says to allow 2-3 hours for a visit but another time I would probably dedicate the best part of a day to it. What with the many animals, the playground, beautiful grounds, restaurants and shop, there really is plenty to keep you busy for many hours, not to mention the various animal encounters scheduled throughout the day enabling you to find out more about and get even closer to your favourite creature.
If this is still not enough for your wildlife crazy tot or teen (or husband, mum, granny…) then it is also possible to purchase a personal experience at the park. From shadowing a keeper to cuddling a chameleon, these did look quite tempting add-ons.
We were also disappointed to find out too late for our visit that it is also possible to camp at Durrell. With luxury safari style camping pods located in an adjacent paddock, it is possible to wake up to the sound of the lemurs calling and unlimited access to the park during your stay means you can even pop in daily to see them after breakfast! This is no ordinary smelly- portaloo-damp- tent style camping either – with WiFi access, wood-burning stove, proper double bed and optional extra tipi for the kids, this is quite literally five star experience. The pods are super popular though and were fully booked at the time of our visit so we were unable to take a closer nosey. We were told by staff at Durrell that people are booking a year or more in advance! Staying at the pods is firmly on our ‘to-do’ list for future years though – what a fantastic idea for families!
I’ve often listened to people bandying around the words ‘saving something for the next generation’ with a kind of apathy. It’s not that I don’t care about preserving the world around us for our children – far from it – but the words are used so often and about so many different causes that they have become cliche, leaving it hard for me to be moved with the same passion that comes from the internal fire ignited by personal experience.
It turns out that the kindling has been there all along in the form of my ongoing love of the natural world and the spark to ignite the fire was waiting for me at Durrel Wildlife Park that Saturday afternoon. This is a place I would love to be around for my childrens’ children to visit although I equally hope, perhaps futilely, that projects of this kind may no longer be necessary for the conservation of our natural world. In the meantime though, I am thrilled to have found such an inspiring place to both engender a love of wildlife in children and adults alike as well as promoting in both action and words its vitally important conservation message.
Durrell Wildlife Park is open 0930 to 1800 every day except Christmas. Entry costs £13.50 for adults and £10 for children, with kids under 4 getting in free.
For more information on visiting Durrell Wildlife Park, Jersey or on the conservation work undertaken by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, please visit their website at http://www.durrell.org .