Could zoos be facing a renaissance now that we are not meant to fly off and see them in the wild? Colchester Zoo opened in 1963 and now covers 60 acres, and houses more than 250 species. Well laid out, it has seven easily navigable zones: Beginning, Heights, Lakeland, African, Valley, Aquatic and Kidz. Some species are endangered, some are extinct in the wild and 41 are involved in breeding programmes.
All UK zoos are required to implement a conservation, education and research policy. Colchester has a charitable arm, Action for the Wild, which pursues conservation work. But for most visitors this zoo is about watching and learning about the animals. At feeding time, the keepers can be relied upon to provide additional insights on the animals' behaviour, natural environment, threats they face (man-made and other), and, of course, what they like to eat.
As well as admiring the zoo's rich mix of species, there's a comprehensive timetable of short talks and displays and children can get involved in feeding the animals. The KD Theatre hosts a programme which includes a "Reptile Encounter" and "Bug Handling". There's a Jungle Safari train in the Kidz Zone and an indoor play area. Birthday parties can be arranged, which include the chance to feed seals or penguins, handle a snake and fly a bird of prey.
There's lots of information about the zoo's conservation work posted around the site. This includes updates on the progress of its South African UmPhafa Private Nature Reserve project and details of the work made possible by visitor donations for conservation schemes overseas. Over-15s can spend a day shadowing a keeper (£50) or being a zookeeper (£150). The shop sells furniture and gifts from around the world.
There are six outlets, with covered and open seating, serving hot and cold snacks and drinks.
The terrain is hilly, so wheelchair users are advised to follow the easier route. All displays and talks are accessible, there is audio information around the park for the visually impaired, and induction loops. There are also disabled toilets, baby-changing and breast-feeding facilities. Registered guide dogs are admitted. There is disabled parking. Wheelchairs can be hired. Children under 14 must be accompanied at all times by an adult.
Open daily except Christmas Day. October-March: 9:30am-5pm or dusk if earlier (last admission an hour before closing). Easter-September: 9.30am-6pm. Adults £13.50, children 3-14 years £7.50, concessions available. A 10 per cent winter discount ends on Friday.
How to get there
Colchester Zoo, Maldon Road, Stanway, Colchester, Essex CO3 0SL (01206 331292; colchester-zoo.co.uk). By bus: The Eastern National 75 runs hourly to the zoo from the main bus station. The journey takes 15 minutes. By rail: From Colchester station take the bus via the main terminus, or a taxi. By road: Take the A1124 exit off the A12 and follow the elephant signs. Free parking.