In these gloomy, recessionary times of closing doors and dismal statistics, there is one particular Irish attraction not just bucking the trend, but taking off at high speed in the opposite direction.
Nearly a million people walked through the gates of Dublin Zoo in 2009, and that figure looks set to rise again this year. That's around 20% of the population -- well, not quite, as some people love it so much, they keep coming back. Not to mention visitors from abroad who make it as high a priority as any of the best-known Irish 'must-dos'. Who'd have thought it -- people coming to Dublin with 'Book of Kells, anything Guinness related and zoo', circled in their travel guides? Friends of mine who have a family membership told me they visited the zoo 20 times last year. Can you think of any other attraction you would happily visit nearly twice a month? (And no, your local pub doesn't count as an attraction). The reason for this is simple, no two days at the zoo are ever the same, in fact no two times of the day are ever the same. Also, it is that rarest of days out, which will hold the attention of kids, from toddlers to moody teens -- a Godsend if you have to cope with both.
I have been so many times at this stage that I have lost count, and yet every time I walk through the entrance turnstile, I feel as if I have just walked into Willy Wonka's candy garden, the strains of Pure Imagination playing in my head (don't worry, I haven't tried to drink from the river). We all know someone who claims not to agree with zoos; but every person with this opinion whom I have asked -- without a single exception -- has not visited a modern zoo. Try it next time you meet someone who shares this belief. I can guarantee they will shuffle awkwardly, babble something incoherent about cages, and then admit that the last time they went to a zoo was sometime around 1970.
As someone who spent almost a year working in Malaysian Borneo, I can say first hand that the 'natural habitats in the wild' people randomly refer to, simply don't exist in large enough quantities to sustain their wildlife any more. Indeed, if we carry on at this rate, they will soon be consigned to the history books. Zoos are an absolutely essential part of modern conservation, and if you want to see this at its very best, you need look no further than Dublin Zoo.
In this age of instant information, where kids can access anything they want at the touch of a button; nothing virtual comes even close to the reality of being only feet from a tiger, the thrill of seeing a baby elephant rolling in the sand yards away, or hearing the shrill shrieks of an excitable chimp. But it's not just about the animals. 600 million people worldwide visit zoos and sanctuaries every year; that's a pretty captive audience, and the hope is, that as many as possible will leave just that little bit more aware of the bigger picture.
Dublin Zoo has gone to phenomenal lengths and huge expense to create living spaces inspired by natural habitats. This is no mean feat when considering animals indigenous to Africa and Asia. But walking up into the African Savannah, there are times when only the temperature reminds you that you are in the Phoenix Park. The area is vast, and the zoo has managed to create an open space that mirrors, not only the African landscape, but the actual herd dynamics of the Savannah. So it's not just a single animal enclosure you peer into, but a wide open plain of zebra, oryx, ostrich and white rhino.
This kind of habitat replication pretty much guarantees breeding success, and Dublin Zoo has an impressive record. The last few years have seen quite the baby boom: rhino and elephant calves, tiger cubs, tapirs, giraffes, gorillas, chimps ... .the list goes on. And a new baby is an immediate draw. It may be about conservation, but I think we all reserve the right to go slightly gaga over baby animals.
Another impressive addition to the zoo is the Kaziranga Forest Trail. This beautifully designed walkway, inspired by the National Park of the same name in India, takes the visitor through twists and turns, from a waterfall at its start, alongside tall swathes of bamboo, and a winding river, impressions of giant elephant footprints leading the way, then a glimpse of a real elephant, baby alongside, at a watering hole through the foliage, and eventually to the viewing areas, where the elephants appear in all their glory. The attention to detail is stunning. This isn't an enclosure, it's a perfect habitat. To see how the elephants engage with each other and their environment is awesome. The holistic, natural approach taken by the keepers means the elephants live in a matriarchal group, very much as they would in the wild, and the result is very obviously contented animals.
The recent success of The Zoo on TV3 highlights the public's appetite and affection for Dublin Zoo. This is a show that was begging to be made and they've nailed it. The stars are the animals and the keepers, which is exactly as it should be. No over-zealous, kooky TV presenters lepping about with a microphone needed here! The show takes us into the very heart of things. Zoo-keeping isn't just a case of feeding and mucking out cages. The elephants for example, have regular manicures and pedicures. In the wild, Asian elephants will roam about 50 miles a day on the search for food, which keeps their feet and nails naturally worn down. This doesn't happen in a zoo environment, so the keepers do the work for them. The respect between keeper and elephant is palpable. No fear, no threats, just calm encouragement and reward; and a nicely scrubbed foot to boot!
Of course, it's not just the keepers that make the zoo the success story it is. Veterinary care is based in UCD, then there are the marketing and education departments, working tirelessly behind the scenes, and without them, the zoo simply wouldn't be the world-class park it is today. Not to mention the 60 or so volunteers who love the zoo so much that they work there for free.
The message is clear. Dublin Zoo is about education, conservation and protection. But make no mistake, it's also about a hell of a lot of fun.
And it doesn't have to end when you go home; you can adopt an animal or become a member, heck, you can even get married in the zoo -- but, before you ask, you can't have the penguins serving drinks.
The zoo is more than a day out. The second you walk through those gates, you feel you are part of something incredible; you are supporting a shared vision of the future, and thanks to Dublin Zoo, it looks bright. Think that sounds a bit over the top?
Go and see for yourself. HQ
Special thanks to Operations Manager Gerry Creighton. Forthcoming events include the McVitie's Penguin Weekend on March 27th and 28th with treasure hunts and lots of penguin fun; and an Eggstravaganza over the Easter holiday with face painting and a giant egg hunt. Special events are ongoing; for further information see www.dublinzoo.ie.'The Zoo' can be seen on Wednesdays on TV3 at 7.30pm. Catch up anytime at www.thezoo.ie