Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Meeting the elephants at Whipsnade Zoo

I got to meet an elephant!  Back in June, Paul and I headed to Whipsnade Zoo for our meet the elephants experience, which had been my Christmas present from him last year.  June seemed so far away in December but I'm so glad it came around quickly because I was beyond excited.

We went to Luton on the train via London and we stayed at Luton Hoo Hotel which is super fancy - very Downton Abbey.  Sitting in the foyer waiting for Paul to check in made me really self-conscious of my leggings and sweatshirt (I wanted to be comfy on the train!) but luckily our room was in one of the out buildings in the grounds.  Still very elegant, but fewer tapestries.

After breakfast the next day we got a taxi over to the Whipsnade.  It's very different from some of the other zoos I've been to in that it's a lot more spaced out.  The park is spread over 600 acres, so there is a lot more walking to do between the different animals.  I was really happy to see that all the animals seemed to have plenty of space to move around.  Because they have such a large park, the keepers are also able to take the elephants out for a walk every day!  They are out for up to two hours at a time after 2pm so no matter where you are in the park you should have chance to see them walking along in a line, holding on to each other's tails with their trunks!

The Meet the Elephants experience is definitely one of the best things I've ever done and surprisingly emotional - I never thought I would get the chance to be so close to a real elephant.  Paul says he has actually had this up his sleeve for a while, but he knew it was important to take me somewhere that the elephants were well looked after which is true - I would never want to go elephant trekking or anything abroad.  I know there are places that only encourage activities that are good for the elephants such as bathing and feeding, but I see so many stories of elephants being mistreated, whipped and forced to give rides (which is actually very harmful to their backs and should never be done). I'm just not willing to contribute to that industry, and it would upset me a lot to see that first hand.

After seeing the enclosure and listening to the keeper, I don't have any doubt that their elephants are pretty spoiled!  I was really impressed to know that the duty of care doesn't end when an elephant is sent to another zoo either - for example, a young male who can no longer live with the female herd - and Whipsnade will only ever send an elephant to a zoo they have fully checked out.  Their keepers will visit Whipsnade to see how they look after the elephants there, and the Whipsnade keepers will visit the new zoo to make sure everything meets the standards they expect for their animals.

The elephant we met was 35 year old Lucha, she was absolutely beautiful!  There were 6 of us taking part altogether and we all lined up along one side of the enclosure, taking it in turns to go up to Lucha and feed her bananas.  The bananas were cut into three pieces and we were told to hold them all in our left hand and pass them over one by one to our right hand for her to pick up with her trunk.  They said to do it one at a time as otherwise she would definitely inhale all 3 pieces at once!  It was so much fun watching her feeling around with her trunk - wetter than I imagined and it really tickled too!

After feeding, we were allowed to stand with Lucha and stroke her, take photos etc. before the next person's turn.  For me this was the most special part, getting to be so close and really take her in.  The elephants at Whipsnade are clearly used to being around people because of how their keepers interact with them from a young age; Lucha was friendly and perfectly happy to let us touch her - she didn't find us as interesting once we had run out of bananas though! 🍌

We each got to go up twice and then the keepers emptied the rest of the fruit out for her as a reward for being so well behaved and patient.  They explained that each section of banana is the equivalent of a human eating one m&m, so not enough to damage her teeth or affect her diet at all.  Then it was time for questions as Lucha went back to join the rest of the herd.  The whole experience was 'behind the scenes' away from public view, and the keepers didn't rush us at all - if anything I think we were all just a bit too polite and British about it and gave up our turn to the next person a bit too easily!  If we ever go again, I'll definitely take my time a bit more.

Thanks to the keepers at Whipsnade, gorgeous girl Lucha and of course Paul for such a special memory. 🐘💜

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