What to do on a summer’s day with two inquisitive boys under the age of four and a baby aged less than one week? With dry weather promised we planned a family day out at the SouthLakesAnimalPark. Unfortunately the park is just about as far as you can travel from our home without emigrating out of the county. And driving seventy miles with two impatient boys sitting in the back seat, boys who hadn’t slept a wink all night because they were ‘so excited’, seemed to triple the length of the journey. Their constant duet of questions, ‘are we there yet?’ and ‘are we there now?’, meant the stop-slow traffic-jam we joined just four miles before reaching our destination nearly caused mutiny, from granddad. By the time we queued to park the car and queued again to pay our entry fee we were beginning to wonder if it had really been worth taking a day off work. But duty called.
My oldest grandson loves nature, in any shape or form. Curiosity drives him to study the many spiders, snails and wood-lice he finds in his own garden. Last week he came home with half a sheep’s skull he’d found (walking on the Fells) which now sits proudly on a shelf in his bedroom. He loves to point out the funny-shaped teeth still set in the jaw bone and remembers the important role they play in a sheep’s lifestyle. Of course pre-historic creatures are his special subject and he dreams of one day visiting that temple of dinosaur bones, the NaturalHistoryMuseum in London – ‘perhaps when I’m six’.
The animal he was most hoping to see at the SLAP (why they don’t use that acronym?) was a leopard. He’d done his homework and recognised the pair of spotted jaguars curled fast asleep in the first major compound were not ‘real leopards’. He admired the tigers, briefly, but was unimpressed by the monkeys’ mischief and didn’t like the smell of the penguins, otters or rhinoceros’s. Although his younger brother was keen to stroke the animals in the ‘close encounters’ compound and was highly entertained when an emu decided to shadow him, despite its hovering like a primeval predator, the need to see a leopard was burning a hole in Oscar’s enjoyment.
It was a beautiful day and we ate our lunch with giraffes peering inquisitively over the railings while a large family of gibbons ran wild between their feet. And we were still sitting on the restaurant’s high boardwalk when four sturdy rhinos marched out below us to eat their mid-day brunch. But still no leopard!
We’d almost given up hope when we discovered a large shed set aside for quarantine animals. Lying in one small room was a soulful snow leopard, flopped against the railings as if he’d given up on the world. Just as Oscar bent to look closer it opened its eyes. Have you ever witnessed the moment when a child’s dream is fulfilled – his face beaming happiness he told everyone within radius, strangers and family, that this was indeed his leopard.
We later learned that the park have only just acquired this beautiful creature, and a huge new compound is currently under construction, a purpose-built paddock where they hope to join international efforts to save this extraordinary breed from extinction. Oscar will certainly do everything he can to help.