Ah, the safari park. They say you can’t lead a horse to water – but you can transport a group of white rhinos halfway across the world and set them down just outside Prescott.
In the same way, you may not be able to get many Warringtonians to the Okavango, but Knowsley Safari Park is probably doable.
Set in 550 acres of countryside on the fringes of Merseyside, just off the M62, the Safari Park has a good stab at the African ‘big five’ animals and brings a lot more to the party too.
The animals and creature in the park come from all over the world, but the big focus is on the five-mile Safari Drive, which has European, African, Asian, Australasian and North American sections and features lions, tigers, rhinos, babboons, various deer, buffalo, elephants, giraffes, meerkats and dozens more.
Separate sections include a sealion pool, numerous birds of prey, an insect house and more – alongside all the usual restaurants and sounvenir shops.
Kids not entertained by the great beasts can amuse themselves on fairground rides – and there’s a new aerial extreme feature for people who like to walk around on ropes suspended a hundred feet above the earth.
The experience of driving alongside semi-feral animals is an exciting one (insert your own Knowsley joke here) and not even zoos can compete with how close you can get to animals. A safari itself seems unlikely to offer such close encounters with large animals, though the prospect of seeing these mighty beasts in their natural habitat would clearly have its own advantages.
The lions are among the best, simply because there’s a genuine visceral thrill to seeing such large carnivores studying your car with the same look your cat gives a songbird on the other side of the window. Lions have been known to stalk small cars at Knowsley, and there’s always the impression they might fancy a closer look at any point.
Tigers are in what appears to be a rather smaller enclosure, closed off from traffic: one is basking in the sun, wriggling on its back in pleasure. The other is stalking back and forth along the fence in the way large cats can often be observed to in captivity.
Each section of the drive is delineated by large iron gates, with keepers maintaining a watchful eye. The lions, particularly, give the impression that they’re quite aware of everything that’s going on in their territory and show no fear of the passing cars.
Emus roam around between some of the sections. They seem most inquisitive and their response to cars suggests they frequently find treats from within. An incautious family might frequently find they’ve bitten off more than they can chew with a hungry emu mooching about in their car.
Then there’s the baboons. Knowsley has hit on a wizard wheeze here: the monkeys get all the stimulation they probably need from hapless families driving through their enclosure, where cars are routinely shredded by the primates anticipating a spot of light rough and tumble.
In reality this is no such thing; it’s complete vandalism. Cars emerge without wing mirrors, aerials or licence plates; cars are scratched and scraped and filthy. One white Golf emerges with blood all over the bonnet; another has a steaming baboon turd sticking stubbornly to the roof.
Kids are hushed, probably thrilled and a little shocked by the experience. Dad is stony-faced, examining the damage to his electric folding mirror, neither folding nor electric now.
SevenStreets made the terror dash a few years ago, thinking not of baboons but those cute little marmosets that inhabit a similar area in Woburn Safari Park. Big mistake. Nothing was actually broken, but the SevenStreets Ford Puma still bears the scars.
Luckily there’s a car-friendly route; SevenStreets is grateful for it. The baboons stare through the wire. “Come and play with us,” they say. “Come and bring us your brittle plastic…”
The next enclosure brings white rhinos, and immediately brings visitors face-to-face with a mother and offspring. The rhinos look calm, nonplussed. Not so the last time we were here, when a juvenile wandered across the road and the mother suddenly realised that there was a small black car between it and its offspring.
This is the thrill of the safari park – beyond the obvious delight of getting up close and personal with the animals – you don’t quite know what’s going to happen.
And yet, knowing more about animals than we ever have before, particularly in relation to their response to captivity, there are moments of worry. Occasionally things don’t feel right. There’s a moment later on when we sit down to watch the sealion show and 500 spectators clap their hands to some pumping house music and the sealions swim into view, clapping their hands in a parody of the audience’s reaction. It just feels… wrong.
And then there’s the tiger pacing listlessly back and forth. And the eagle who is swallowing dozens of pebbles from the bottom of her aviary. A lot of this behaviour seems abnormal and somewhat troubling, although the love all of the keepers and handlers have for the animals they look after is clear.
There’s a suggestion that seems to be gaining in popularity that any attractions that feature captive animals are less than desirable; but there’s an extension of that argument that suggests that these captive animals are the fall guys. They need to exist in the public eye to raise awareness and funds for preservation efforts in the wild.
The safari drive is accompanied by a CD guide from the park’s animal manager David Ross, who tells personal stories of the 40 years he’s worked at the park and gives some details as to the animals, their enclosures and the development of the park. Approaching the elephants enclosure, undergoing a rebuild to give them more room while we were there, it’s shocking and startling to hear him opine that the elephants won’t make it in the wild.
It’s an indictment of the human race that we’re steadily wiping out species across the world and it throws zoos and safari parks across the world into sharp focus. While they bring with them their own problems, they may end up as the last resort for dozens of species across the world; little self-contained arks dotted across the developed world.
We leave feeling ambivalent. Watching the animals in itself is fascinating and engaging; the fact that you drive 20 minutes out of Liverpool and park the car among among a pride of lions is, frankly, incredible and there are birds of prey flying around and sealions balancing rugby balls on their nose and meerkats freaking out when a crow flies overhead.
As a day out it’s not especially cheap but it is undoubtedly wonderful. Whether your personal ethics make such a trip impossible is up to you; the facts of the matter are still not sufficiently clear to us either way.
But while it’s wonderful to be able to see these animals it’s hard not to believe it would be better if they were in the wild. But while we get a car-friendly zone, wild animals get no such protection from us. For that reason it seems preferable that the Chester Zoos and Knowsley Safari Parks of the world are still here.