Yorkshire Wildlife Park is set to have its biggest year yet, and now there’s even more chances to get face to face with the animals. Lindsay Pantry finds out how.
“She was hand-reared - but I still wouldn’t trust her…”
‘Her’ is Tschuna, Yorkshire Wildlife Park’s Amur Tigress, and new mum to cubs Hector, Harley and Hope.
After a re-cap of the safety rules from carnivore team leader Kim Wilkins, I’m handed a box of meat and tongs, ready to give the five-year-old her morning snack.
By this point in the morning, I’m already a dab hand, after starting early feeding polar bears Pixel and Victor before moving to the big cats, but seeing Tschuna, in all her glory, rip chunks of horse meat from the small tongs I’m tightly gripping is still a thrill.
Yorkshire Wildlife Park opened in 2009 on the site of a former riding school and farm in Doncaster, and has grown at an astonishing rate. Its first year saw 66,000 visitors, and this year looks set to top 682,000 - compared to 434,000 last year.
This is no doubt in part to the pull of this year’s new arrivals - the tiger cub trio, an Amur Leopard cub, and two new polar bears to add to Victor, who arrived in 2014, becoming the first captive polar bear in England.
But what is gaining more popularity at the park is its VIP experiences, which allow visitors to get a behind the scenes tour, getting face to face with the animals, feeding them, preparing their enclosures and dealing with the messy jobs.
And so, back to Tschuna. Next to the huge Land of the Tiger reserve, built in 2011 for Tschuna, Vladimir and Sayan, who are part of the European Breeding Programme, is an area where the tigers can be fed, trained, and checked for their health and welfare away from the eyes of the public.
Even with the highly experienced rangers, it feels daring and even a little naughty to be so close, but thankfully tough iron gates separate us.
“Husbandry between tigers and leopards is very similar,” Kim says. “They are incredibly dangerous animals, so we always have two slides locked between us and the cats.
“It’s all about respecting that these are dangerous - even though Tschuna was hand reared, the instincts are still there.”
Luckily for me, Tschuna calmly accepts the horse meat I offer without any drama. These smaller chunks of meat are often used when training the animals.
Training is kept to a minimum, the Park is keen that they keep their wild instincts and do not become too used to human contact, but it is incredibly useful.
Our first stop, before the park opened to visitors, was to Project Polar, where a ground-breaking scheme to train Victor is being watched closely by keepers around the world.
Victor, who came to Doncaster from Holland in August 2014, has a long-standing foot issue, which requires regular monitoring with x-rays. Ordinarily, this would be done when the bear was under anaesthetic.
But the team at Yorkshire Wildlife Park have designed a box-like addition to the cage next to his 10-acre reserve, and are training the 16-year-old bear to place his paw inside, ready for an x-ray should he need it.
Training is all reward-based, and only done when the animals play ball. As Kim taps on the box to urge Victor to put his paw in place, he follows suit, and get a tomato sardine as a reward.
“When we’re training we give the boys high value reinforcement, like these,” Kim said. “It’s just like giving your kids a Mars Bar for a treat. They are more likely to do it again.
“But it’s all about if they want to do it - if they walk away from a training session, that’s fine.
“They are really smart and pick things up quickly.”
Kim, who has been at the park for three years, will present her research at conferences to benefit bears around the world.
Most of the time, the polar bears are out in their enclosure, which has an eight metre deep lake. Victor and Pixel, who arrived in March, live in one section, with new arrival Nissan, who hit the national headlines when migrants attempted to get into his transportation lorry in Calais in October, lives in another.
Nissan came from Moscow, where he fed off human attention, Kim says, as we walk past on our way out.
“Please don’t look at him,” she says. “We want him to be out in the enclosure, not up at the fence looking at us.”
Part of the polar bear experience is hiding “enrichment” in their enclosure while the bears are safely out of the way. Things like fish, scented grass and chilies are hidden in the rocks. There’s also the chance to clean up some of the ‘mess’ they’ve left behind. The huge enclosure is around four or five times bigger than the concrete one Victor was kept in before he came to Yorkshire.
“Being close to the bears is a real ‘wow’ moment,” says deputy animal manager Rick Newton. “We knew a lot about Victor before he came, and as a captive bear he had a lot of issues. We put together a plan to keep him occupied and enriched, but also to lesson the behaviours they’ve learnt from being in smaller areas.”
We leave Project Polar for the carnivores, and to meet Drake the Amur Leopard.
By meet, I should say be hissed at, as I carefully hand him meat at arms length,
“They are a tough species to have in captivity,” Kim says. “They are elusive, they don’t like to be seen, but we keep him for his benefit.”
There are only around 70 Amur leopards left in the wild, and Drake, along with female Freya, are in the international breeding programme.
Their two cubs were born in June, and as they are genetically healthy, could eventually be released into a semi-wild environment. But for now, mum Freya is fiercely protective, and will hiss if we get near to their enclosure.
“It is absolutely essential that we breed them,” Kim said. “In the existing population in the Amur Valley, there has been a genetic bottleneck die to inbreeding, so we have to try to counteract that.”
While at the park, the cubs will have some very basic crate training to help with moving around, but like with most of the animals, there is as little human interaction as possible. It will be the same for the tiger cubs, who at a few months older than the leopard boys, are much bigger and bounding around their enclosure.
After feeding Tschuna, it’s over to the giraffes. Visitors can do a mini experience with the park’s tallest inhabitants, and it’s quite a different experience feeding them.
Jambo, a six-year-old male, licks my hand as he pulls leaves from the branches I offer him.
Animal ranger Nathan Watson, who looks after the four giraffes, said: “At this time of year, there aren’t as many leaves around, but in the summer they can get through 50kgs. Right now, they are also getting pellets and things like nettles to supplement the leaves.”
We move on to try and give giant anteater Kounamy a fruit and yoghurt smoothie, but there’s no coaxing her from her sleep.
As with all the animals, we’re very careful to stand back, behind a yellow line well beyond the bars of the cage behind her enclosure.
Rick said: “She may look serene and peaceful but she too is dangerous. In the wild they’ve killed three people, and have a middle claw, usually used to break up termite mounds, which they hit out with when threatened.”
Luckily there’s no such threat and we safely move on to feed some of the wallabies, a favourite with little ones on the Junior Ranger experience. When we arrived at Lemur Woods, I inadvertently stand in between a scrap between a ring tailed lemur and black and white ruff Casper, who had been making the most of a stick filled with apple and pear chunks I’d offered him. But no harm is done, and he happily attacks the stick to make the most of the treat.
Then it’s off to our final visit, to feed Crystal the lioness.
The lions were rehomed from Romania to Yorkshire Wildlife Park in 2010, and live on a nine acre reserve. When they are moved around, the lions are rewarded with chunks of meat like those I get to feed Crystal. Visitors on the VIP experience tour the enclosure three times a week.
Animal ranger Beth Phethean said: “The main feed takes place in the paddock, with the boys having around 10kg and girls 5kg of either horsemeat or beef - but never duck, they are very fussy and don’t like it!”
A really wild experience
There are already a host of different behind the scenes experiences at Yorkshire Wildlife Park, and there are plans to bring in even more.
Each are limited to make the them all the more exclusive, and the Polar Bear Experience, which is £300 for two people, is held just once a week for small numbers.
Kids from 10 to 15 can become Junior Rangers, cleaning enclosures and feeding animals like the lemurs for £95. An adult experience is also available. Mini experiences are available with meerkats, giraffes and baboons for £25, but those wishing to get the full experience can opt for the VIP package to spend two hours with lions, tigers, meerkats, mongoose or African Painted Dogs for £150 for two people.
For more information visit www.yorkshirewildlifepark.com find out in person at the Park’s Christmas fair on December 12 and 13.