Friday, 18 September 2015

Heythrop Park Zoo Open Day 2015

Last Saturday, I did something a little different, and visited a small private zoo called Heythrop Park Zoological Gardens with my sister, Marie.

A few weeks ago, neither of us has even heard of Heythrop Park, even though it's been around since the late seventies, and we've both lived locally to it our whole lives. I didn't even come across it when I was studying animal care and searching for work experience opportunities. It seems to be a well kept secret. My sister finally found out about it from a friend last month, and we decided to try for tickets for one of their open days.

Just to warn you, this post is word and picture heavy. I've got so much I want to say and show you!

Unlike most zoos, Heythrop Park isn't usually open for visitors. It only opens to the public for two or three days a year- this year on the first two weekends of September. It differs from other zoos because it isn't there for education, conservation, breeding, or entertainment purposes; it's actually a zoological collection of animals that are used in the media industry.

I'll admit I was a little cautious when I first heard about it, because I was concerned about animal cruelty and the ethical side of using animals for entertainment. I was worried that by going I could be contributing to animal cruelty, and could also be met with some heart breaking sights. I'm a massive animal lover, and I feel strongly against animal cruelty and neglect, to the point where I do get up on my soapbox, rant, and piss people off from time to time, because it angers and upsets me so much. If animals aren't well looked after, I will get vocal. However, I was also curious about this place, so I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt, and make up my mind once I'd seen it for myself.

So, on Saturday morning, we were up bright and early, and after a pit stop for breakfast, we headed off to the zoo in the rain. Hurray for English weather!

Heythrop is close to Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, and after following the Sat-Nav through miles and miles of countryside, we found the zoo right in the middle of nowhere. If there wasn't a parking attendant standing beside a turning in to a field, we would never have known it was there. I think that explains why most people don't know about the place.

Driving in to the field towards the make shift car park, we were flanked by paddocks with bactrian and dromedary camels, deer, springbok, gazelles, and a few unusual breeds of cattle. I was pleased to see they all looked happy and healthy, and had plenty of room with decent grass to graze on- it reassured me a lot. 

We had to hurry along because we had tickets for an early big cat show, and didn't have long before it started. We were just heading through the entrance to hand in our tickets when two young keepers with squirrel monkeys on their shoulders, who were walking past, stopped us and asked if we'd like a squirrel monkey on our shoulders! Of course we said yes. The weird thing is, just a minute earlier, after getting out of the car, my sister had said all she wanted was to stroke a squirrel monkey today! Weird or what? She was made up. I had one on my shoulder for about a minute, who was mesmerised by my Cath Kidston squirrel brooch. I was surprised by how light, well-behaved, and docile she was. I didn't get a decent photo of myself with her, though, because my sister is totally useless at taking photos. The monkey isn't even looking up! I look awful in the one she took, so I'm not showing you the full picture, but here's the evidence! 

That little encounter was a great way to start our visit, and really made our day. It wasn't something that was offered for money, and they weren't stood around exploiting the monkeys all day. I didn't actually see anybody else get the chance to hold one, and just after we met them, the keepers walked straight on past, on their way to work.

After we handed in our tickets, we hurried along to the filming room to see the big cat show we had been allocated tickets for when we ordered our tickets. This was something I was very wary about because I worried the animals would be treated like circus animals. 

It was in a small room with maybe eight or ten rows of tiered seats, and a small caged area at the front with a green screen across the walls, and a hatch to let the animals in (like you see in zoo enclosures). As there was netting along the top of the metal caging, I imagine they usually use the whole room when filming or training when visitors aren't around. We were in the second row from the back, and the whole room was packed.

We learnt a little about each individual animal and were shown footage of some of the work they've done before each cat or cats came in to the cage with their (brave!) trainer. There was a beautiful black leopard who has starred in car adverts, who made a short and sweet appearance for just a minute. Next were two stunning orange Bengal tigers, followed by two enormous male lions who all did a few tricks for a few minutes, encouraged by pieces of meat on the end of tall sticks, and loud commands from their trainer. They were simple tricks like standing up on their hind legs in unison, jumping from podium to podium, and roaring. I've never heard a tiger roar in real life before! The sound is equal parts magnificent and terrifying! One of the tigers wasn't impressed with working in front of an audience, and spent most of her time hissing at the room, but she wasn't forced to perform when she didn't react to commands. I was a little uncomfortable watching the cats perform like this, as it felt a little like a scaled down circus act, but I will add there was no sign of physical abuse, and the cats didn't look stressed, distressed, over-worked, or physically unhealthy.

We were told that when their animals are on location that the zoo always have their own vet present who can back the trainers up when the animals need to rest, because not every client gives a shit about the animal's well-being. They also have a number of rules about what jobs the animals can and can't do; for instance, somebody actually got in touch to ask if an actor could ride a lion in to battle, and they obviously refused! It appears to be a long process from being contacted by the media company to filming. The person will usually contact them to find out what animals they have and what they can do, and if necessary, the trainers can even spend months training the animals to do something new for their part. It was fascinating to hear all about it, and it was obvious the staff were really passionate about their animals.

After the show, we were free to wander around the rest of the zoo. 

The zoo is small, and since it's not a public zoo, it isn't as polished as others I've been to. But, it has a rustic charm to it that reminds me of the years I spent studying animal care on a farm, and the weeks I did work experience behind the scenes at two public zoos. I'm comfortable in those sort of 'country bumpkin' environments, so I had no problem with a few imperfections.

So, here's a million photos of the animals we saw. Sorry there's so many; I couldn't narrow them down any further! I just love taking photos of animals.

First up was the tallest, darkest giraffe I've ever seen sharing an enclosure with a couple of zebras.

There were a few wolves who were excited by all the people, and were behaving like pet dogs, running about and standing up to get a better look at everybody. I assume they're completely domesticated. There was also a run further back, away from visitors, with two foxes inside; one red and one black. Foxes are some of my favourite animals, and I've never seen a black fox in real life before so that made my day.

In the next cage was a striped hyena asleep on a bed of woodchips, whose lips kept curling up in to smiles as he slept. This is another animal I don't think I've seen in real life before, but I've always wanted to. Some would call them ugly, but I think hyenas are beautiful.

There were some meerkats sharing a pen with a couple of gorgeous porcupines. 

And beside them was an enclosure with a couple of skunks and raccoons inside, which I spent some time watching. I love skunks- they're adorable little things. One of the raccoons was paddling in a small pool of water, dipping his feet in the water as if he was cleaning them or playing.

There were two large grizzlies in a rocky enclosure with a pool, curiously watching the world pass by. The way the bear on the left was sitting on the rocks seemed almost human.

Near the bears was a small tropical house which was home to a variety of reptiles, including some crocodiles and pythons, plus some tropical fish, and two pygmy hippos (who also had access to an outdoor enclosure). It was busy so I didn't spend long inside, and sadly my photos of the hippos came out blurry.

Opposite the tropical house was an aviary with a small flock of flamingos, preening themselves, and filter-feeding in the wet mud around their pond. 

The macaques were fascinated by all the people who were walking around. This little guy was playing with the fire hose, which zoos commonly use as climbing material for primates.

These are the two male lions that were in the cat show we saw. I think they're probably two of the most beautiful lions I've ever seen. I will never understand how people can poach beautiful animals like these, and live with themselves afterwards. Never.

The squirrel monkeys were completely fascinated by all the humans, and were pressed up against the front of their cages to get a closer look at what was going on. I'm not sure if the two my sister and I held were in this cage, but they were all bloody adorable. Just look at those tiny fingernails!

There were also two stunning parrots next to a stall that was offering information on animal encounter days that you can pay to experience at the zoo at a later date. The encounter days included experiences like feeding giraffes and walking wolves, and they all sounded amazing. I'd love to do them all! We left our details, so hopefully we'll hear back at some point.

The zoo were also offering camel rides on some of their two breeds of camel, which seemed to catch a lot of interest. We didn't go for it for fear of hurting the poor things!

This pretty little tortoise was strolling along, and didn't seem to understand that it couldn't keep on walking through the walls! I'm not sure it knew about turning corners.

This tortoise was enjoying the sun, and kept craning his neck up in to the rays.

I saw my very first white tiger, which has to be one of the most beautiful animals I've ever seen. I was surprised to see she had chocolate-brown coloured stripes, as I thought white tigers all had black stripes. She also had the most beautiful piercing blue eyes.

There were several aviaries home to pelicans, swans, kookaburras, doves, pigeons, penguins, and even a raven. The stork above was free-roaming, and we also saw a couple of peacocks strolling around.

And after an hour or two, we saw everything there was to see, and headed back to the car. We paid a quick visit to see some of the camels in the paddocks alongside the car park as we passed. The only animals we didn't go to see up close were the deer, cattle, and gazelle because their paddocks were past the car and I was too sore and worn out to walk any further. Luckily, the zoo was very small, so it didn't take long to walk around, and that made it a manageable little day trip for me. 

My sister and I both enjoyed our visit. As someone who studied and worked in animal care for years, I personally found the trip interesting, as it's so different to other parts of the animal industry I've explored. and it gave me a lot to think about. I know a place like this is controversial, but I could see the animals were all well looked after, and none of them looked distressed or like they were suffering. They looked well fed and healthy, and their enclosures were clean. I would've liked to see some of them in bigger enclosures, but they weren't kept in cramped conditions, and had plenty of room to move around and enrichment to encourage natural behaviour. The staff were all very friendly and helpful, and the zoo had a pleasant country atmosphere. Given the chance, I would happily return again in the future.

If you want to know more about the company and what they do, you can check out their website here

When was the last time you visited the zoo?


  1. Wow, these photos are amazing!!! You captured some beautiful shots. I can understand your hangups about going here but you're wise and you've stated it as you've seen. That white tiger is just beautiful! I am amazed. How cool to have the squirrel monkey on your shoulder too!!! What an amazing day! I've not been to a zoo for years- the closest I have been to a zoo is just the butterfly house at Blenheim a few weeks ago- P.S.I did a little blog post on Thursday about the Blenheim maze if you're interested at all? It would be delightful if you felt the slightest inclination to go and have a look!!x

  2. Oh wow Louise! These photos are amazing. Thanks so much for sharing - I almost feel like I've had a day out myself. What a lovely place! xx

  3. Aww the skunk and raccoon are so cute! And look at you with that little guy! Xx

  4. This is an amazing little "zoo" - I guess I never thought too much about where animals from film and television come from but this totally makes sense. It seems like they treat these animals really well, I have to admit there are a couple of zoos I've been to in Asia that nearly made me want to cry, so I always a bit anxious if I got to zoos I've not been to before. Also SQUIRREL MONKEY!!

  5. Ooh, these pictures are amazing! I guess I also feel that a place like this is better then being raised privately or in circus's or that. Some animals do need a place to live that aren't in the wild, due to one circumstance or another. I do love most zoos I've been to, last one was around a year ago. I think the highlight of my zoo experience was seeing Pandas (it was a HUGE thing for Australia to get Pandas), and also doing a behind the scenes tour with hippos.
    Out of all these pictures, funnily enough, the animals I've never seen and would LOVE to are the skunks and raccoon! I just adore raccoons!


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