diamond geezer

 Wednesday, December 06, 2023

A skinflint's guide to visiting London's zoos

London Zoo is an acclaimed repository of globally-sourced animals, as well as a conservation hub and a prestige tourist attraction. But it's a bit pricey with tickets costing £27 on weekdays and £31 at weekends, or even more on the door. So I wondered how many exotic beasts I could see for nothing by walking around the outside. Not only is the zoo located in a public park but a road and a canal pass straight through so there's plenty of freely-available perimeter to be scanned.

I started near the canal basin on the Outer Circle and walked around the triangular menagerie in a clockwise direction. It soon became evident that a lot of shrubbery has been planted around the edge of the zoo to try to prevent precisely what I was trying to do. Lengthy railings don't help either but at least they're visually permeable, plus it's December so the intervening foliage is less of an obstruction than it can be. My first success was a thin gap with sight of a bright blue pool and a tall penguin. That turned out to be a model, but at its feet were black and white blurs and they were the real thing waddling about on the edge of Penguin Beach. It was a rubbish view but my first tick.

The entrance to Land of the Lions is clearly seen but not the beasts themselves, they're far too well wrapped. But the squirrel monkeys are perfectly observable, at least when they're bounding above their enclosure on the highest ropes. The first sign is a gentle wobble on the line, then an agile ape bounds into view switching from one rope to another and then whoosh, they're gone. I saw about one per minute. It was hardly like being 'In With The Monkeys' but I still got to enjoy some of the aerial gymnastics for none of the admission price.

Other ploys to diminish the boundary include locating the behind-the-scenes areas beside the fence and also the toddler-friendly interaction zones. Nobody at ZSL minds if passers-by see the goats, alpacas are ten-a-penny on city farms these days and you've no chance of spotting the porcupines and coatis anyway. The camels, though, were plain as day. They have windows on both sides of their lodgings and on my visit were favouring the Regent's Park side with their chewy stares, not the paying punters. Best view so far.

The gibbons ought to be as good, what with their caged enclosure facing the railings - there's even a 'you are being watched on CCTV' notice to discourage mischief. But they all seemed to have had the sense to stay indoors, given the grizzly weather, which is the main downside of waiting to visit until the leaves fall. The Mappin Terraces shield their secrets behind multiple concrete summits, no longer home to the bears but to wallabies and emus, so were no great loss. I kept following round to reach the Outer Circle and heavens, black and white perfection. Two zebras were out nuzzling hay from a bag on a post, and the view from the pavement was almost as good as families were getting beyond the fence.

I had highest hopes for the giraffes nextdoor because I've seen them on every previous walkpast. Alas in the morning theyre locked inside their lofty shed, the 186 year-old Giraffe House designed by Decimus Burton, so this time they weren't spotted. But I did see the ostriches, an entire neck-stretching flock, which was great because they only arrived this summer after being absent from the zoo since 1987. As for the mongooses though, nothing, ditto the fruitbats in their trunky cage, and the otters were too low down by the foot tunnel to be visible from the road.

For a last throw of the dice I walked canalside, this being where you get the best view of the Snowdon Aviary. But it's not full of birds any more, it's now a walk-through space sparsely populated with colobus monkeys. A few distant black and white tails were visible. The prairie dogs should have been a shoo-in opposite, given that the Cotton Terraces are now at canal level, but they weren't keen on London weather either. I actually got my best sighting of the day from a heron taking off beneath the pheasantry, but you don't need to go to a zoo to see one of those. Penguins, monkeys, camels, zebras and ostriches, though, were not a bad tally for zero outlay.

Another BIAZA-affiliated zoo can be found in Hanwell, west of Ealing.

Hanwell Zoo is no showstopper of a venue, and this is reflected in the lowly £4.50 admission price. But if you're too mean to step behind the cafe and pay up there's another triangular railinged perimeter to circumnavigate. The trouble is they've been even cleverer at keeping animals out of sight of passers-by, partly through cage orientation and partly through having some pretty tiny animals. Lemurs, meercats, clownfish and dormice have not evolved to be viewed from safari park distance.

Neither did I have any luck with the capybara, margay or supposed flamingos. I did spy two donkeys and some peacocks but that was the sum total, and again they're more generally city farm fodder. The only other mammal visible was a zookeeper, not even any punters because a wet Tuesday afternoon in December is not peak zoo-visiting territory. Try milder weather, bring littl'uns, pay to go inside and Hanwell Zoo can bring a dash more cheer. And hurrah that somewhere else in the capital is offering a conservation-based animal experience for the price of two coffees, not a three course meal.

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