In the spring of 2013, we had spent a particularly quirky weekend in the West Country with friends. It was rounded off by drifting into Dartmoor National Park. Now if you are traversing the length and breadth of its vast moorlands, you know you have the Dartmoor Zoological Park at hand. A family-owned affair that was featured in the film, We Bought a Zoo. A zoo that was in a derelict state and its animals at threat of being put down when it was bought by a freelance journalist and his art editor wife. That was in 2006. Since then Benjamin Mee lives in the wildlife park with his two children and mother. His wife died the year after, of brain cancer. But I am not going to narrate their story here because it is not mine to tell. Instead I will tell you about the inhabitants of this family-run zoo because they exude emphatic charisma.
When we got off the Tamar Bridge that spans the River Tamar, we gradually made our way to Sparkwell. Picture here, a small village with a few character cottages, whitewashed stone affairs with quaint windows, a local church and a rustic gastro-pub with a Michelin star to its credit. On the outskirts of it, stood the 33-acre zoo where we arrived after driving through a landscape that seemed to have been woven out of neon green pastures and brown moors, tangled branches of old trees sprouting tiny leaves, and those bare, sheathed in moss and lichen.
Inside were the regular suspects — ponies and temperamental ostriches, wallabies, wolves, otters zebras and curious cranes, but what were those? The eyes goggled as they fell upon rodents as big as hogs. Capybaras. Supposedly the largest rodents in the world, but quite so challenged on the beauty front. Then there was Otto, the Great Grey Owl, an ascetic boy around whom we had to be quiet around because he liked his peace, a few Burrowing Owls excessively fond of a locust diet, tapirs with a soft spot for tummy tickles — and altogether too many reptiles and slugs and frogs who I shall skip over.
The stars of the show came later. A family of meerkats, slender beings with grizzled coats of grey and brown fur, tiny ears and dark patches around their eyes. Natural, effortless comedians as they stood upright in an effort to spy the horizon for likely predators. They were after all surrounded by a gaggle of inquisitive humans.
Dartmoor Zoo is not your average wildlife park. It is tranquil. So it is with pleasure that you can observe its many inhabitants. Such as the somnolent cheetah who could not be bothered with anything but snoozing in the mellow afternoon sun, the Siberian tigers Vlad and Strip who took turns in sitting upon a stone perch in their enclosure, Jasiri the lion who roared magnificently, strutting and showing off his majestic maned beauty to the gawping few, then proceeded to ignore one and all once he got a juicy slab of steak. In the aftermath of it, you could hear the disturbing crunch of bones and behold a creature of impetuous passion. You shuddered and figured that it was time to move on.
In the next enclosure, pacing up and down the length of a path running around a green mound with a disused car sitting atop it, was Josie. I was thrilled to bits to see this contemplative lioness because she happened to be Solomon’s daughter.
Solomon was the star lion of the park when he was alive and had featured in We Bought a Zoo (go on then, click it already). This lion with the mahogany mane had quite the presence but, mind you, only after his mother-in-law Emma had died. For when Solomon arrived at the park, he had Emma and her daughter Peggy to befriend. He tried to assert his authority. He was a male, dammit. But Emma would have none of it. The story goes that during feeding times, Solomon always stood at the back patiently waiting for Emma to take her share first. Only when she had moved away, would he dare to take his. Solomon mated with Peggy — Josie was one of their cubs — and became the king of the pride after Emma died. Now there is only Josie left with her cooperative instincts which is attributed to her weakness for meats. A plaque outside notes: ‘She is always keen to go in or out, whatever is necessary to help the keepers, hoping there may be a small reward for her assistance.’
And would you not meet the brown bears, Hayley and Fudge? Hayley, the European Brown Bear, is a senior lady in her 31st year with a penchant for curry powder. She must be lonesome now, having lost her beloved friend, Fudge, last year. But when we met them, Fudge, the Syrian Brown Bear who was an uncommon shade of straw, was trudging faithfully in Hayley’s trail. Hayley was immensely protective of this older and weaker friend of hers. Both were very health conscious ladies. Fruits and nuts made up their diet, and Hayley, careful with her diet, ate meat and fish once a week. I remember how alert Hayley was. Later in the evening, on our way out when we stopped by to say our farewells, she waddled right up to the door of her enclosure and lay there like a being waiting to be loved up. And somehow I was left with a hypocritical disquiet that revolved around the dichotomy of the very existence of a zoo.