A couple of weeks ago, I visited Heythrop Zoological Gardens, a small private zoo hidden away deep in The Cotswolds countryside, with my sister, Marie, and brother-in-law, Steve.
Marie and I visited Heythrop for the first time last September, and since we really enjoyed the experience, we just had to get tickets for one of this year's open days, too. Well, you know me; I never pass up an opportunity to spend time surrounded by animals! -Seriously, I don't think I ever have.
You might be wondering why a zoo would have open days, when they're open to visitors every day of the year. Well, Heythrop zoo is a little different to your average zoo, and it isn't usually open to the public. In fact, they only allow guests in three days a year, when they host their open days each September. You see, unlike most public zoos which are typically designed for entertainment, education, breeding, and conservation purposes, Heythrop is a private zoological collection of animals used in the entertainment and media industry. Their menagerie of animals are animal actors that star in movies, TV programmes, adverts, music videos, and so on, destined for fame and glory us mere mortals will never know, and are too busy soaking up the lime-light to mingle with us regular folk every day. You don't come across a zoo like this one every day.
We set off just before 10am, travelled through miles of scenic countryside, and arrived at the zoo, which is literally in the middle of nowhere, about half an hour later. From the road, there is nothing that suggests a zoo is hidden beyond the visible fields, and if we didn't know better, we would have easily passed on by none the wiser. Luckily, we did know better, being super wise like that, so we turned in to the field, and headed down towards the make shift car park at the bottom, passing grassy paddocks full of llamas, alpacas, goats, cattle, camels, and even some breeds of gazelle or antelope. Don't ask me which ones; I must have left my binoculars and hooved-animal identification guides in my other bag.
At first, it looks like you've stumbled up on some kind of rare-breeds farm, until you park the car, and continue a little further on foot across the field, turn a corner and head towards the entrance; a lane with an open gate, and a woman collecting and selling tickets from behind a table just beyond it- very country fete. As you queue up, what you can see looks like behind the scenes of a working farm, with a long straight road stretching ahead, lined with buildings, farmyard machinery, empty crates and travel cages stacked up, and a few pens and hutches containing rabbits and guinea pigs on grass at the front. It isn't until you walk a few feet to your left and discover a group of zebra and a giraffe in the first enclosure that you realise it's not a farm, after all, but a zoo.
As we handed in our tickets, we heard excitement coming from the zebra enclosure a few feet ahead of us, and walked over to see what was going on. There were four zebras trotting and galloping around excitedly, rearing up playfully, and having fun, while a lone giraffe stood over them looking down his nose, as if embarrassed to be seen with them. I've seen a lot of zebras in zoos over the years, but I've never seen any look as happy as those four were; it was lovely to see.
We had a little time to kill before the big cat show we had tickets for, so we had a quick peek at the wolves and pygmy hippos in the next pens along, and also spotted a couple of red foxes in enclosures several feet back from the public path, partially hidden by a tall grassy verge and a canopy of trees. Living in a small town surrounded by miles and miles of English countryside, we do see red foxes often in the wild, but since they're one of my favourite animals, I loved getting to see a couple up close in the daylight.
After five or ten minutes, we doubled back on ourselves, and walked down towards the zoo's filming room, hoping to be early enough to get a decent spot for the big cat show. Staff were just beginning to allow visitors inside, so we timed it perfectly, and ended up three rows from the front. Last year, we were a row from the back, and while there were only about ten or twelve rows of chairs to the bleachers, we found it difficult to see what was going on properly. This time we had a great view.
The filming room is small, consisting of a small caged area with green painted walls at the front with a hatch to the side to let the cats through, and the small set of bleachers before it. Going by photos on their website, it appears that they usually use the entire room when filming or training, so this was just a make-shift set up while guests were present.
As the seats were filling up and the staff were getting organised, we watched as the woman leading the show (I forget her job title, sorry), walked around the audience with a deadpan expression on her face, holding out a target stick. Without giving any instruction, she was encouraging kids to reach up and touch it, and when they worked out what she wanted them to do, she clicker-trained them and rewarded them with sweets. It looked random and amusing, but it was to demonstrate something she would explain later.
The half hour show included a talk about the zoo, and the kind of work the company do, along with visual examples of work their big cats have done. We learnt that one of their beautiful tigers had starred as Shere Khan in the recent live-action film The Jungle Book, and the lions had featured in adverts for a football team. I believe they also supplied the animals for the BBC drama Our Zoo a couple of years ago.
We also got treated to brief appearances from some of their cats- two stunning orange Bengal tigers, one beautiful black leopard, and two huge handsome lions, each breed appearing separately in the caged area for a few minutes each. The tigers and lions graciously performed a few quick tricks, including walking in tandem, jumping over the other cat's back, sitting on podiums, and jumping across to the next, commanded by a trainer using nothing but a loud booming voice, a couple of long thin sticks, and meat for rewards. Brave man! During the lion appearance, they explained that the sticks are only used as an extension of their arms, and to demonstrate, the trainer swapped one of his sticks for a giant feather- and kept the same control! Amazing. At no point did he resort to physical abuse to make them obey.
In between the tiger and lion appearances, was a short but sweet appearance from a beautiful fifteen year old black leopard. It was during this part of the show that the woman leading the talk explained how they train the cats through clicker-training and positive reinforcement- basically, in the same way many of us train our dogs at home. When they do something correctly, they hear a click, and receive a small treat as a reward, and will quickly learn to do the trick or behaviour each time because they associate the command and action with a tasty treat. It's simple but effective. The leopard had been trained to touch the end of a target stick, for both training purposes and to make health check-ups easier, and they did a demonstration with the help of a couple of kids from the audience. Two small boys were asked to place the target stick through various holes in the cage bars, and the leopard was asked to touch each one. He behaved beautifully, although he was only in the cage for a couple of minutes, which I assume is probably down to his advancing age.
After the cat show, we were free to wander around the zoo, but decided to head on over to queue for the Adaptations show before walking around to see the animals, as this was something we didn't do last year. There was a huge queue but thankfully, we managed to get seats as the tent it was being held in was huge.
The show was unbelievably cheesy and clearly aimed more at children, with a little comedy show put on by the woman from the cat show, and another lady wearing a lab coat speaking in a terrible fake German accent, to explain how different animals have changed and adapted through evolution. There were appearances from a miniature pony the size of a large dog, ring-tailed lemurs, a sloth, various bunnies including a one-eared rabbit named Unicorn, rats that ran along ropes on stage, and even a big black raven.
A man from the audience had the challenge of competing against the raven to get a coin out of a bottle, put the coin in a money box, and place the bottle in a bin- all without using his hands. Of course, the clever raven won before the man had even got the coin out of the bottle. The man looked so wounded to have been beaten by a bird!
So, after the shows were out of the way, we strolled around the rest of the zoo. The zoo is tiny compared to any public zoo or wildlife park, and doesn't take long to walk around at all, but they have an amazing collection of weird and wonderful animals and we had a lovely time strolling around looking at them all, working backwards towards the entrance. Obviously, I wanted to take photos of everything, much to the dismay of Marie and Steve who really aren't big on taking photos at all. I didn't manage to get the shots I wanted because of that and because my camera didn't want to focus, but these are some more of the photos I took and animals we saw.
At the back of the zoo is an area mostly made up of aviaries and pens containing penguins, pelicans, storks, cranes, swans, ducks, doves, and a raven. One stork was free-roaming, and there were also peacocks wandering around. The crowned cranes wanted to get close to everybody, and were following us along the fence line- not trying to attack us like the one at The Cotswold Wildlife Park!
There were also enclosures containing two shy red kangaroos, ring-tailed lemurs, macaques, and squirrel monkeys. The lemurs were having fun jumping in to net hammocks like kids at a playground, and the squirrel monkeys were pressing themselves up against the cage walls, fascinated by all the people wandering around.
In the middle, were Bengal tigers, including one stunning white tiger with chocolate brown stripes and piercing blue eyes cleaning himself like a house cat, plus a leopard, two large grizzly bears, flamingos, raccoons, skunks, porcupines, and a tropical house filled with crocodiles, snakes, and all kinds of reptiles. I think there were also insects, fish, and amphibians in there, but my memory is hazy.
And that led back to the pygmy hippos, wolves, foxes, zebra, giraffe, and small animals, and I was excited to spot a badger scurrying around alongside the foxes. It was the first time I've ever seen a live badger in person- well, apart from the split second I caught a glimpse of one in my garden last year after busting it raiding the recycling bins; it dashed away so fast, so it doesn't really count. I've always wanted to see one properly, so it made my day.
After that, we headed out of the zoo, and walked down to see this newborn dromedary (one-humped) camel which was only three or four days old, and still had it's umbilical cord attached. I've never seen a newborn camel before, and this little guy was too cute for words! He was all legs and bug eyes, and kind of looks like ET face on, don't you think?! I wanted to take him home.
We then headed back to the car, passing the fields of cattle, camels, and other hooved animals, although we didn't go for a closer look as I couldn't walk any further. I was content with how much I'd managed to see, just the same, and really enjoyed myself.
Before I go, I feel I should add this:
Obviously, a zoo that trains animals for our entertainment, is going to be seen as controversial, and even viewed as unethical, and before my first visit last year, I was cautious... but, I decided to see it for myself instead of immediately forming a picket line in protest. And... it turned out to be completely different to the 'circus ring' image I'd formed in my head. I'd expected to be met with miserable, emaciated animals in dirty cramped cages showing signs of abuse and neglect, but it wasn't like that at all.
All of the animals we saw looked bright and alert, happy, well-fed, and healthy; in fact, I'd say they were probably some of the healthiest looking animals I've ever seen. (I guess they'd have to be in perfect condition to get work). None of them had a scratch on them, and there were no signs of physical abuse, neglect, or distress whatsoever. The enclosures were all clean and tidy, and while some of them could do with being a bit bigger, some had been expanded since last year, and all allowed the animals plenty of space to move and breathe, and included enrichment to encourage natural behaviour. In my opinion, they all looked well-cared for and don't appear to be suffering or over-worked for our entertainment.
We all thought it was a fun and interesting experience, and if you're still unsure about this place, all I can say is, go check out their website, and go along to one of their open days next September to experience it for yourself. You can usually apply for tickets from August onwards, but you'll find all the details about how to apply on the website.
I have a feeling the three of us will be returning for another visit next year!
If you'd like to read about last year's visit, you can do so here.
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The Cotswold Wildlife Park July 2016
The Cotswold Wildlife Park June 2014
Heythrop Zoo Open Day 2015