Dusk is falling on Seal Coast. Sammy’s fur glistens as he twists and barks after an impish, rolling swim in the dwindling evening sun. We’ve returned the technicolour parakeets’ evening solicitudes, seen art imitating life as mothers and cubs embrace and bidden goodnight to yawning Asiatic lions Kamran and Ketan. We’ve ventured behind the scenes of Gibbon Island and Monkey Jungle and snuck through a torch-lit nocturnal safari. Now we are emerging from the zookeepers’ laboratory-esque quarters, fish in gloved hands, ready to be thrown and caught in the mouths of the baying fraternity of South American fur seals.
The secret life of zoos
Welcome to the secret life of zoos. There have been a raft of overnight animal experiences (dubbed ‘roar and snores’) unveiled in Britain and across the world. If London Zoo is the Caesar’s Palace of the UK zoo scene, then Bristol Zoo is The Burj of its accommodations. A purpose built penthouse flanking the 2-centuries-old walls of the world’s fifth oldest zoo, originally backed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Where, on arrival from our sunset safari the sun sets over our terrace, lions roar in the hinterland, an itinerant, curious tapir sashays before us and a golden lion tamarind glares. Our personal waitress and private chef unveil a 4-course banquet in the jungle-themed dining room: succulent Welsh lamb, panna cotta Eton Mess and a cheeseboard of the nuttiest parmesan and most pungent stilton: everything tastes farm fresh and vital. Then our staff retire, locking the door to our jungle-themed penthouse behind them. It’s just us and the animals in the zoo tonight, only the call of the wild perforating the perfect stillness of our slumber.
The dawn chorus
The next morning we wind past the stirring black lemurs and howler monkeys, capybaras and drills; bidding good morning to the rousing gibbons, pigmy hippos and wallaby, baby in pouch, to feed the expectant, furrowing meerkats.
Gorillas in our midst
Then we enter Gorilla Island. An impish toddler somersaults overhead, becoming a whirr of ape and straw tumbleweed. The beta male attempts to join the breakfast party, then spotting Jock, the muscular 32-stone silverback, lackadaisically beats his chest before skulking back to his corner. As we eat our breakfast in silenced, surreal, trepidus fascination, the glass separating our picnic table from the fearsome primates just a couple of metres away and overhead, the gorillas begin to close in on us. One apiece, they press themselves against the glass, gawping, uncaring of staring, condemning us to being nervous, subjugated captives to their gaze.
On our way back to The Lodge, resigned to the madding, glaring crowds re-entering again, the lion recognises us as the sole human occupants of the Zoo last night, switches his tail at the cawing onlookers and, turning his head to us, winks.
Gir Lion Lodges at ZSL
Land of the Lions
Accompanying ZSL London Zoo’s newest £5 million attraction ‘Land of the Lions’, the Gir Lion Lodge is a 9-cabin camp that, like its setting, is inspired by the villages fringing the Gir National Park in Gujarat, India. With its faithful Holi and spice colouring, crumbling temple façades, sand floors, mongeese, monkeys and that soon to be pride of three sisters and a male recently flown in from Winnipeg Zoo, the setting couldn’t be farther removed from central London. There are three out-of-hours tours – during the evening animal feeding and enrichment, then later an after-dinner torchlit safari to spot the nocturnals at play. Breakfast with the penguins is a dreamy awakening far from the madding crowds, but above all it’s the sleepover experience – launched last April and in roaring distance of the lion enclosure – that truly takes you for a walk on the wild side.