Our son can, on a good day here at home on the Isle of Skye, if he keeps his eyes open see rabbits, deer, otters, seals, dolphins, whales, basking sharks, sparrow hawks, owls, buzzards, golden eagles, sea eagles and a whole range of other animals flying, hopping, splashing, leaping and swimming around him that most children have to watch TV to see. So it was interesting that for his birthday he told us he would like to go to the zoo.


He was taken with his sister to Edinburgh Zoo. And we were joined by Aunt Lesley who is an all round enthusiast about almost everything. The kind of Aunt you want on your side when shepherding two over excited, over tired, and over anticipatory children around a zoo.2013-10-01_0026

It is the largest zoo in Scotland, in the heart of Edinburgh and at the moment most famous for being the home to Britain’s only pair of pandas. When you arrive this is made obvious by pandas appearing on banners, posters, signs and flags, flyers, t shirts, caps, mugs, key rings, pens, pencils, rubbers, rulers, torches and guide books. I expected to be greeted by staff wearing panda suits. What we wouldn’t be seeing after all that was a panda. The stars were having a day off. All the speculation about the female Tian Tian being pregnant or not had been a bit much and they were having a day away from the public gaze. “Sensitive” was the chosen word. I presumed the male, Yang Guang, was feeling a little bruised by so many questions about his virility.

Never mind the pandas there were LOTS and LOTS of other animals to see.

What we were then greeted with after we walked through the rather nice new entrance was an empty and tatty enclosure. The seals used to be housed there but no longer. A disappointing first impression.

We decided that we would feed our own hungry little animals having timed our arrival for lunchtime. We headed for the cafe. It was as tatty as the seal enclosure and was only selling sandwiches, really expensive unappealing sandwiches. There was a hot food counter, it looked very impressive but was shut. I should say that our visit was on a Sunday that could be the last hurrah of summer. All the families of Scotland seemed to have taken the opportunity to visit the zoo. Having the cafe shut was probably a bad idea.

We then discovered a restaurant which unsurprisingly was creaking under the pressure of all the families of Scotland all turning up at lunchtime…for lunch. I personally particularly enjoyed my 20 minute wait in the queue. Luckily, the food at the end of the line was good and the harassed and overworked staff were still cheery and helpful.

Not a good second impression.

Up next were the penguins. The penguins, before the pandas muscled in on their act, were the star attraction at the zoo. They appeared on all the banners, posters, signs and flags etc. Now they are feeling a little second best and this may have been why only 3 penguins emerged for the famous penguin walk. Well, 3 started the walk but one was sent back inside for having a bad attitude. Recovering from what is described as their “catastrophic moult” (I had a mental image of two penguins standing in that unique penguin manner chatting and suddenly there is a loud PHUT and their feathers blow off explosively)  may have put the penguins off too…if you’re not looking at your best why bother?

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The penguin enclosure is very impressive and the birds do seem genuinely content. There is a glass viewing wall to the pool that lets the penguins get up close with the humans while underwater. They seemed to take a fancy to our daughter’s cuddly dog and would try and peck at it. Both sides of the glass enjoyed this. Things were getting better.

The zoo is built on a steep hill so there is a constant climb to see animals. As we worked our way up we saw rhinos, lions, tigers and leopards. As we came back down there were koalas (there has just been a birth in the koala enclosure, the first ever in the UK), monkeys, apes and pigmy hippos. Most time was spent with the meerkats. Hugely entertaining and because of their presence on TV instantly recognisable to the children.

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2013-10-01_0031I said at the beginning that our children see lots of wild animals being wild and free. They are most definitely not free and are not in any way wild in the zoo. They are all very healthy looking and on the whole seem quite content but are they happy? Zoos split opinion. Are they cruel or are they the last hope for some species. Our children have seen plenty of rhinos on various TV programs but to see the sheer vast, armoured bulk of one walking past shocked and fascinated them. Will they be inspired by a visit to see caged and corralled animals? Will they go on to make a difference in the world because of what they leaned and saw at Edinburgh Zoo? I hope so. Many animals only hope of survival is with the help of the very thing that endangered them in the first place – us. Though I have to admit to having a few doubts about the panda. Why are we putting so much effort into helping a species that seems to be putting so much effort into its own extinction? I mean bamboo, who eats only bamboo? And they don’t seem to have made procreation very easy have they?

Overall the Zoo was a wonderful experience and as the afternoon wore on the children became even more engrossed in the new animals they could see and learn about. A quick break to the lovely adventure play area half way through the afternoon was perfect for 15 minutes down time for both children and for Mum, Dad and poor run ragged Aunt Lesley to grab a coffee and recuperate. The children led a spirited and good natured final assault on the gift shop (and were thrilled to discover that Aunt Julie had kindly left gift tokens behind the counter for them) before collapsing in an ecstatic heap under the giant posters of the Giant Pandas and declaring this the “best birthday ever”.


Images and Words Andrew Woodhouse at Landscapes 365 and Rosie Woodhouse at Love Skye Photography