Week 31 - Welsh Mountain Zoo
Winding up the unassuming narrow path, you would have no idea of the majestic wonderland that lay at the top. Nestled into the Welsh mountain coastline, the Welsh Mountain Zoo is home to some of the world's most endangered species.
I really don't need to reiterate my passion for animals, especially endangered ones. But I also understand the level of controversy that surrounds zoos. I have already received a very mixed opinion on my social media channels with regards to this week's visit and to be honest I'm not surprised.
I myself, held a very mixed opinion prior to my visit. With almost all of my Huffington Post articles being directed at the mistreatment of animals, I was apprehensive about going to an establishment that kept these wondrous creatures in a cage. But, nonetheless I reserved my judgement until the fat lady sang.
Arriving before the crowds I was given a tour by Jamie, the communications officer at the charity.
Yes - the zoo is a charity. Fully fledged and registered, like every other zoo in the UK. See that's the thing. It makes sense, if you think about it logically. How could they be a business? They are there for the conservation of endangered species, not a theme park. Zoos make their money through admittance (admittedly) but it's to generate a revenue to allow the best care possible for the animals they house. And because of their conservation work ,they deal with international organisations to ensure that these species survive; a business wouldn't do that.
Walking around the hilltop paradise with its twists and turns and fabulous views of the coast, you can see why people visit. Rare and almost extinct animals roaming around and showing off in all their splendour; it's the perfect day out for any family on holiday. But what I wanted to see was despite being in somewhat confined spaces, how the animals were cared for.
My first day was spent with the zoo keepers; the perfect introduction into the world of the zoo. Each person is allocated a section of animals determined by their personal passion for that specific area. There's no point looking after the bears if you love chimps, so they team the love with the animal to ensure the best level of care.
If you're passionate about something, you put your heart and soul into it, right?
My first stop was the red panda, a rare breed of panda that, over the past few years, has rapidly declined in numbers. These pandas don't breed very often, so the fact that they were housing 6-week-old babies was a near miracle. These stunning creatures were magnificent. In their safe house with mum keeping a watchful eye above, it was a true honour to see them. People spend years looking for these in the wild, let alone seeing their offspring. So I felt truly privileged to lay my eyes on them. We left bamboo in their enclosure and quietly crept away.
They were safe, well looked after and in a very spacious enclosure, but more importantly the zoo were ensuring the survival of the species. Used in China for their 'medicinal' properties, these elegant animals are poached for their 'magical' qualities. What a joke.
Walking around the rest of the site I really was given the most immersive experience. From caring for meerkats to stroking grey owls, the list of jobs was endless. It's no surprise that it costs over £1m a year just to keep the place running.
But you see, that's the point of all of this. Conservation. From feeding spider monkeys bananas, who gracefully took them from us, to watching the unrivalled snow leopards (who are so endangered that there are only 400 left in the wild) graze on their afternoon snacks. Whatever your opinion of zoos may be, consider the alternative.
We live in a world where some of us feel it is acceptable to hunt. To kill an animal because they either believe they hold medicinal qualities or their fur will look good down the runway. We live in a society that has seen the murder of countless creatures and even led to the extinction of entire species. You only have to look at one of the most high-profile cases in a decade to see that there are still people out there that kill for fun. Cecil the lion made headlines around the world and in some way educated the population that this does go on. Every day.
So whatever your judgement of zoos, understand that they are there to conserve these species that are more at danger in the wild than you may think. If these animals that I spent time with across my day were let back into their natural habitat, the chances of their survival is pretty slim.
A big part of the Welsh Mountain Zoo is the education centre, something which they are desperately trying to fundraise to renovate. They use this space to educate children about the animals they have within their care. Making them understand the importance of conservation and how crucial it is that these specifics survive.
Take bee's. The simple, humble bee. But if they were say, to become extinct, we would have exactly 4 years to live. Because without them plants don't get pollenated. Harvests and fruits don't grow and our whole eco-system goes haywire. It's these types of lessons that they try to teach our younger generations in the holiday periods. Spreading the awareness of our wider world so they one day will grow up to understand the importance of ensuring the survival of some of our planets most incredible species.
But, as a tourist attraction, the park needs to be kept up to scratch. So, on Wednesday, I spent the day with the gardeners, caring for their acres of land. Making sure the zoo is in the most presentable of fashions is crucial to getting punters through the door. If the gardens look shabby you wouldn't really want to visit, would you?
It's a mammoth task and takes the expert care of 5 full time members of staff to keep them up in tip top condition. And I must say, they would rival any National Trust property.
My final day was spent back with the keepers, being given an even more 'access-all-areas' experience. It was during this time, when I was giving toys and food to the chimps, that it really struck me. These animals have one-on-one care every day of the year. Here, they are cared for, looked after and loved. But what struck me even more was the fact that people kill these animals for whatever reason. When you get up close and personal with a chimp, and really see how insanely intelligent they are, how could anybody poach such an amazing primate.
My time with the Welsh Mountain Zoo was more than I could have ever hoped; they went above and beyond in every single way. But it really did test my own personal opinions on these types of establishments. It's sad to say that if these creatures were let back into the wild, their natural habitats, they wouldn't stand a chance. Within months of being set free all of these creatures would come under a real and tangible threat from poachers. Fact.
And where would we be then? Pleasing the minority who are persistent in their so-called fight for justice; ensuring these animals are let back into their mother land because that's 'where they belong'. But ignorant to the fact that doing this would only lead to an even more rapid decline of their kind. I almost find it sad that we need zoos, much like animal rescue centres. The Welsh Mountain Zoo is a truly fantastic place to visit and I would genuinely recommend it to anyone!
But the fact of the matter is, we do. Ying and yang. For every evil, there is a good. Some poach, others conserve. I know which side of the fence I'm on.