Who doesn’t love the zoo? And what better way to enjoy a summer evening than by prowling round the exhibits, cocktail in hand, without the distraction of screaming children? That’s exactly what you can do at London Zoo this summer, thanks to the launch of its new adults-only Zoo Nights programme. And BBC Focus was lucky enough to pay a visit.
My companion and I had never been to London Zoo before, and were keen to see as many of the animals as possible. After rushing through the fast-track gates as soon as they opened at 6pm, we dashed up towards the aquarium – our thinking was we could start at that end, then work our way down. The aquarium was fascinating, and the tiny seahorses and their babies were a firm favourite. Next it was time for the reptile house and bird safari, before going to say hi to the tigers and tapirs.
After all this excitement, we were feeling a little parched, so we had a 10-minute sit-down in the central area of the zoo. This had been completely transformed for the event, and featured fabulous light-up animals, a funky-looking street food market offering a fabulous assortment of treats from around the world and plenty of pop-up bars. (Highly recommended: jungle gin cocktail.) While slurping our drinks, we enjoyed entertainment in the form of fabulous stilt-walkers. New career goal.
Of course, it’s not a zoo visit without a trip to a face-painting booth, so after perusing the options, I settled on a blue leopard design, complete with glitter and gems. There may have been tears when it was time to wash it off that night.
After this, we swung round to the Animal Adventure area to hang out with the farm animals, including a charismatic (and noisy) donkey, before heading across to the meerkats and porcupines. Next, we walked through the squirrel monkey enclosure to get up close to the tiny primates. Their section was filled with trees, ropes and bushes, so it was a fabulous way to really see their climbing skills ‘in the wild’.
Following this, we paid a visit to one of the flagship exhibits, Land of the Lions. This is one of the newest parts of the zoo and has been painstakingly designed to resemble an Indian national park, complete with a train station, crumbling temple and high street. And we even managed to capture a glimpse of one of the zoo’s Asiatic lions! On the way out, we felt very jealous as we saw two people enjoying drinks on the verandah outside one of the zoo’s Gir Lion Lodges. Yep, you read that right, it is possible to spend the night in the zoo! With the lions!
The problem is, by this point, time was ticking on and we still had loads to see. The zoo is waaaaaaaay bigger than we anticipated, and we hadn’t had time to see any of the exciting programme of activities. And with the animal exhibits closing from 8.30pm, we had to get a wriggle on. We dived into the bughouse, and were completely enraptured by the leaf-cutter ants. They were so close you could touch them! (But we didn’t. That would be naughty.) The Hercules beetle was another highlight – it was having some papaya for dinner, and had managed to smear half the fruit all over its horns. But perhaps the best bit was the walk-through spider exhibit. Potentially an arachnophobe’s nightmare, this room is filled with enormous spiders sitting on their webs sans cages or bars. While the member of staff assured us that the spiders wouldn’t land on our heads, we still had to quickly check our hair and backs on the way out just to make sure.
The adjacent Blackburn Pavilion was closing at 8.30pm, and by now it was 8.15pm. We dashed in to see the birds and were so glad we did. As it was just starting to get dark, all the birdies were starting to roost for the night, so it was lovely to get a close look at them as they sat on the branches, with their delicate eyelids gently starting to droop. I could certainly empathise: my step counter was going berserk!
After deciding to skip Butterfly Paradise due to time constraints, we made our way down to the final section of the zoo. But to be honest, by this point, we were having to power walk everywhere. The giraffes were being put to bed, the zebras were having their dinner, and the hunting dogs – though unbelievably cute – had snuggled into their den for the night. We decided to go and flop back in the main section and enjoy a fabulous performance from some aerial acrobats as the Sun went down.
While we had an incredible trip, Zoo Nights just doesn’t give you enough time. There was a fascinating programme of activities to enjoy on the ‘Mane Stage’ including Poo Dunnit (who did that poo?) and Zooniversity Challenge (an animal knowledge quiz), but we just didn’t get the opportunity to take part. Still, it’s completely correct that exhibits should be closed down at certain times, as animal – not human – comfort must come first.
Zoo Nights would be perfect for someone who had already been to the zoo, so they could make a beeline for their favourite animals and also enjoy the extra events. But for first-time visitors, there was just too much to cram into a small period of time. Nonetheless, we loved our visit and it’s certainly whetted our appetite to go again!