A huge roaring tiger was leaping off the roof towards us. Of course it never actually reached us because it was made of plastic! It’s the first thing I saw as we pulled up to the Isle of Wight Zoo on this sunny clear winter day. I was chomping at the bit to go inside because, although the zoo has a variety of animals, it specialises in tigers and lemurs, both beautiful and intriguing creatures that a sassy cat like me can relate to. It’s a family-run zoo built within the ruins of a Victorian Fort constructed to guard Sandown’s coast and its fundamental goals revolve around care, conservation and education.
We wandered in and caught sight of the black and white ruffed lemurs with their paws spread out and their bellies on display, laying on a rock in a sunny spot of their enclosure. They lifted their heads lazily and watched me go by as if I was impudent for disturbing their sunbathing. There were some lively ring-tailed lemurs, black lemurs and red ruffed lemurs, and the slightly more timid grey mouse lemur and white-fronted brown lemurs. I had no idea there were so many types of lemur! The mongoose lemur (named McLovin) was originally taken from the wild by illegal traders and sold as a pet to a Polish sailor. I’m so glad he ended up here at the Isle of Wight Zoo where the keepers care deeply for this lost little soul and make every effort to encourage his natural behaviour and enrich his environment.
Like McLovin, many of the animals at this zoo have their stories. Some have been rejected by their prides or family units, others rescued from circuses or animal performance groups, or liberated from lives of stress and misery. Natasha has visited this zoo before and is friendly with the keepers, so she gave us the inside scoop on the histories of me of the big cats. Rajiv the tiger (an Indian/Siberian cross) was bred by a circus organisation in the UK and sent to the USA to be a ‘celebrity animal’, posing with people and opening hotels. I can only speculate as to what unkind means his owners used to keep him pacified during the times he was on show. He was apparently kept in a concrete pen and suffered chemical burns to his elbows because his owners would hose-out the pen with him in it. His life at the zoo is a thousand times better than the life he had before.
Zena the white tiger suffered with eye problems for many years due to the inbreeding history of these animals and had her right eye removed due to glaucoma in 2006, which is why breeding white tigers is not ethical practise. When we saw her, she was parading up and down her enclosure with a muddy wet tummy, having splashed around in the puddles and got that fluffy white coat of hers all dirty! She is amazingly 17 years old and enjoying her retirement with her sister Zia who you can see in the photograph flopped out on a rock.
Casper is the white lion you see in this iconic pose as he stands on top of the rocky hillock in his enclosure surveying the surrounding terrain. Lions are under threat all over Africa as they lose habitat and compete with humans and Casper has played an active role in helping to raise awareness of their plight by taking part in a project for Lionaid. What a star! He had quite the entourage as we looked up at him in awe and he went all alpha-male on us, puffing out his chest, shaking his magnificent mane and grunting. We were doing a bit of grunting ourselves after holding awkward positions for ages waiting to get some good shots of Casper so we decided to go to the café for some lunch. As we sat comparing images, my cat instincts kicked in and I felt eyes on me. I looked around to discover we weren’t alone in the café as a pen full of degus was checking me out. I gave them a flick of the tail and a shimmy-wiggle as I trotted out of the door. Well, you’ve gotta give ‘em something!!
My brazen swagger was nothing compared to the bold strides being taken by Tequila the jaguar. This striking beast had black spots and rosette-shaped patterns across her coat, a muscular body, robust head and powerful jaw. She arrived at the zoo in 1999 with some behavioural problems thanks to her less-than-happy experience with an animal entertainment troupe. However, she now displays natural and healthy behaviour as a result of the care she receives at the zoo. The jaguar is the third largest feline after the lion and tiger and populations are in rapid decline. As their habitats decrease in size and richness of wildlife, these poor things are being forced to venture too close to human populations in their desperate search for food and are being killed by farmers and ranchers for attacking the livestock. So much damage has been done through poaching and deforestation that the road ahead is a tough one and the future of these exceptional cats is bleak, but organisations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society are making efforts to protect jaguar populations and we can only hope that this help has come in time.
I liked this zoo’s ethos and their willingness to take on animals that other zoos may not want because of their age or history. The keepers know the characteristics and requirements of each individual big cat in their care, down to disposition, sociability, allergy status, food preferences and even the noises they make. You can read more about the animals on the website. Meantime, one small domestic short-haired cat, two adult humans and one child made their weary way back to the car with exhausted smiles on their faces for the journey home.