by ANTONY CLAY
WATCHING a pair of enormous polar bears messing about in a pool of water like young kids having fun on holiday will be a memory that sticks in my mind for a long time.
It was a hot day so the bears wanted to cool off – but there was clearly much more to it than that. They were obviously having a lot of fun too as they rolled around and played with what looked a bit of rubber.
Dozens of people were intrigued and entranced and viewers must have got the impression that these bears thought they’d struck gold by ending up at their rather special home.
Their residence is the extremely popular Yorkshire Wildlife Park on the edge of Doncaster at Branton and its four polar bears have arrived at various times since 2014.
But the big bears are just part of a huge array of beasts big and small – 70 different kinds in fact ranging from mini meerkats to ginormous giraffes – which are drawing in the crowds throughout the year at the venue which opened in April 2009.
Since then it has made a name for itself and brought in such unusual beasts as giant otters, painted dogs and black rhinos.
And people have been flocking there: families, school groups, you name it.
Set over 70 acres, the Yorkshire Wildlife Park is big and you certainly need to give yourself the best part of a day if you want to see the whole thing. You can buy season tickets if repeat visits seem a good option.
The venue is divided up into sections which you can explore at your leisure. Areas include South American Viva!, Project Polar, Land of the Tigers, Leopard Heights and Into Africa.
You can travel around in any direction you wish once you’ve entered via the Safari Village which has an array of interesting shops.
I ventured over to the baboons first and enjoyed seeing the group dynamics at play. The dominant male surveying his kingdom, his underlings vying for position, the females in clear charge of proceedings and the delightful youngsters annoying each other as well as the grown-ups.
The painted dogs weren’t doing much apart from lying in the sun. It was a hot day and they had the right idea. Their coats of yellow, white and black spots and stripes were really pleasing to the eye.
Next to Lemur Woods for an up close experience with ring-tailed and red-bellied lemurs. It was the ring-tailed variety who seemed most brazen, sitting eating leaves less than a metre from people. It was pretty amazing because you could spot one then two and suddenly realise there were actually around a dozen right in front of you.
Everyone seemed to like the lemurs – and why wouldn’t they?
Next on my visit was Project Polar where three of the afore-mentioned bears were enjoying some watery fun.
However, it was when one bear came out to be fed that a true impression of this animal’s size became apparent. They are huge and their paws, and claws, are testament to their ferocious reputation. But the one eating out of a handler’s hand (admittedly behind cage wire) seemed rather laid back.
The South American Viva! section offered up a variety of treats, including uber cute squirrel monkeys, biggest rodent in the world the capybara (as big as a medium-sized dog), giant otters, coati, mara and the plain weird giant anteater, a long-snouted hoover of ants and termites with a rather punkish personal decor. A bizarre creature indeed!
But it was this section which offered up my personal favourite creature of the day – the six-banded armadillo.
There were two of them who seemed perfectly happy going clockwise or anti-clockwise around a track they had worn out with their little feet along the perimeter of their pen, helpfully bringing them very close to the watching public who they studiously ignored.
As the little creatures, about the size of a chubby small dog, trotted along they would suddenly veer off to some spot which had caught their attention, snuffle around for a bit and then run back to their path to continue their never-ending journey.
The armadillos had their own agenda and nothing was going to steer them off from it. I could have watched them all day.
The Land of the Tigers contained, well, tigers. Three Amur Tigers to be precise, called Vladimir, Sayan and Tschuna. No cute little pussies these, and the way they fix you with their cold eyes is truly unnerving. Yet when they saw a handler with potential food they were almost playful and excited like our domestic moggies, running after him and jumping about.
My expedition continued to the Into Africa section where I had the pleasure of seeing giraffes, black rhino, ostrich, amongst others, and this led me on to Lion Country where the king of beasts were well and truly fast asleep in the blazing sun.
But there was much more still to see, including camels, brown bears, leopards and others.
There really is so much to do at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park and the little human beasties can also run off some that excess energy in an adventure play area and a play house with super slide.
There are plenty of opportunities to grab a bite to eat, have a drink or buy a souvenir, and the venue has ample parking though the Wildlife Park does get busy.
It runs special events too, so keep an eye on its website at http://www.yorkshirewildlifepark.com to see what is going on.
The park is open every day from 10am, apart from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so it can be an all-year-round treat.
The Yorkshire Wildlife Park is certainly much more than a zoo and the Yorkshire Wildlife Park Foundation supports conservation and welfare.
If you like animals, this is the place to visit. To me, the animals seem to have plenty of space and are well looked after. They seem to have the freedom to move around their spacious pens as they wish, which sometimes gives humans the chance to get very close.
It is a lively, interesting venue for all ages. My next visit is already on the cards.