That old animal magic

Children these days are increasingly sophisticated, but they still love to see wild creatures up close - whether it's lions, chimps or otters, says Mary Braid
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The Independent Online

What do you have to do in a zoo or conservation park these days to capture the attention of the sophisticated 21st-century child? The latest technology - a live webcam link to a watering-hole in the African bush, perhaps, or an interactive exhibition - is what one might assume would be required. However, according to Veronica Crisp, marketing manager for Howletts and Port Lympne Wild Animal Parks, founded by John Aspinall, when it comes to animals, children like it real and raw.

What do you have to do in a zoo or conservation park these days to capture the attention of the sophisticated 21st-century child? The latest technology - a live webcam link to a watering-hole in the African bush, perhaps, or an interactive exhibition - is what one might assume would be required. However, according to Veronica Crisp, marketing manager for Howletts and Port Lympne Wild Animal Parks, founded by John Aspinall, when it comes to animals, children like it real and raw.

"They love the gory side of things," says Crisp, adding that what the children love to watch at Port Lympne, near Hythe, in Kent, is the feeding of the lions. Whether it's an entire horse or some rabbits on the menu for the big cats, the children are fascinated. "They don't get upset," she insists. "The rabbits are tied to the top of a viewing window and the children love it when the lion jumps up to get one."

The human child, thankfully, also has a gentler side. At Aspinall's parks, baby versions of any species are a favourite with children. Baby elephants are expected to put in an appearance at both Aspinall parks soon - just in time for the high spring and summer seasons. And the excitement around feeding time and baby animals can hook children into serious learning and an appreciation of the parks' policy of returning animals to the wild. All that the parks' educational staff and keepers need to do is keep the education practical. "To capture the children's imagination, we show them the crates that we make to return rhinos to Africa," says Crisp. "They always have plenty of questions." Likewise, the children spend hours quizzing the keepers on the minutiae of looking after the animals.

Despite the access that modern children have to wildlife information, through video, DVD and the internet, Crisp feels that none of it matches their excitement when they see wild animals up close.

Jim Cronin, a former keeper at Bronx Zoo who founded the Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre, near Wareham, Dorset, 18 years ago with his wife Alison, a primatologist, adds another ingredient to engage small visitors' interest: they turn every one of their 170 primates into individuals with their own life stories. Monkey World figures regularly on best-children's-attraction lists, and Jim puts it down to this narrative approach. "Children will look at any chimp for about five minutes, but at a chimp with a history for four times as long. Through the stories, children learn about how humans all over the world are mistreating animals. And they learn that conservation can make a difference."

The centre works with foreign governments to prevent primate smuggling, and provides a home for rescued chimps that often have no "wild" to return to. "They come from all sorts of horrible situations," says Cronin. "We have found them in barbed-wire cages and chained to bars." But he emphasises that a day at Monkey World is fun as well as educational. "We have an adventure playground kitted out with the same equipment that the chimps play on, so the children can act out what they have seen the chimps doing."

If you think that animals need to be exotic and foreign to wow children, think again. At the New Forest Otter, Owl and Wildlife Park, near Ashurst, Southampton, there are no big jungle stars. Instead, children meet smaller, and often British wild animals, including fallow deer, badgers, pine martens, ferrets, foxes and harvest mice, as well as four species of otter and 17 species of owl. Sally Pearshouse, the park's education officer, says that it offers structured and supervised learning as well as plenty of fun. The favourite attraction is a little greenhouse area where they can look through glass at the otters swimming underwater beneath their feet. "They spend ages there," she says. "Children may be well-informed these days - sometimes they know things that we don't - but we give them the chance to encounter animals that they have never encountered before. Not many children have seen a badger, for example, before they come here."

John Crooks, the park's animal manger, agrees. "You can see animals on video, but to see and smell them is entirely different," he says.

Howletts and Lympne Wild Animal Parks ( www.totallywild.net); Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre ( www.monkeyworld.co.uk);

New Forest Otter, Owl and Wildlife Park ( www.ottersandowls.co.uk)

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