Dartmoor Zoo, in Devon, is famously remembered as the inspiration behind the Hollywood film ‘We Bought a Zoo’ starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson. Oddly, although this fact seems to be quite well known, they don’t seem to make much of it at the zoo itself. Apart from one poster in the cafe, I couldn’t see any other references to the film on our visit which surprised me. A small zoo like this has to make the most of what it’s got rather than trying to compete with the big zoos. Of course, Dartmoor Zoo will never have the range and variety of animals of Paignton but it has a charm all of its own.
What most impressed me was that they had so many ‘meet and greet’ experiences through the day. There were so many of these experiences that my three children ended up with a one-to-one session with one of the volunteer keepers. They loved being able to ask questions and hold some snakes and tortoises as they were given lots of interesting information about some of the zoos smaller animals. There actually seemed to be scores of volunteer keepers around, so even when meet and greet sessions weren’t on there was always someone to answer questions. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case at the very first animal of the day which another family seemed completely perplexed by. It was actually a Tapir but there were no signs nearby so when the children asked what it was, instead of admitting that they had no idea, their parents simply had some imaginative guesses. Those children went away thinking they’d either seen a Mini-Pig (the mum’s guess) or a Chimichanga (the dad’s guess).
There were a few animals which refused to come out which is probably always going to be the case in any zoo. I was particularly sad not to see the Bears or the Siberian Lynx. But luckily, these no-shows were more than made up for by some fabulous performers, the Jaguar being the star of the show for me. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a Jaguar up-close before and we were able to get really close and personal to this beautiful big cat. The Tiger was a close second and patrolled his area magnificently, eventually climbing onto a large rock to clean his paws. My children were mesmerised by both these big cats. But we also loved the playful Meerkats – always a guaranteed class act; as well as the impressive wolves, and noisy Lions. Apart from the Jaguar, which nothing could compete with, my highlight of the day was a Falconry show. A Cara-Cara bird seemed to decide that a yellow flower on my wife’s coat was a baby chick and dive-bombed her repeatedly. She wasn’t scared but she did play her part beautifully and flapped around much to the delight of my children and the other children who were there.