Shad’s big cousins on the Isle of Wight

Regular readers will know that John and I have visited the Isle of Wight Zoo before and enjoyed taking some fab pictures of the big cats that live there.  Remember Casper the white lion and Zena the one-eyed white tiger?  Don’t get me started about the unethical practice that surrounds the breeding of white tigers!  Anyway, the Zoo on Sandown’s chalky coast is well known for its lemurs and rescued big cats, some of which come from circus and entertainment backgrounds, having been rejected by the industry once they served their purpose.
This trip was a Really Wild Photography Workshop that is offered by the Zoo and hosted by professional wildlife photographer Karen-Jane Dudley.  Karen-Jane was excited to see a domestic cat like me in the group and said the big cats would be very curious to see me.  We exchanged tips on the art of wildlife photography and she told me some stories from her experiences in South Africa where she travels every year to capture beautiful images of the animals, like the zebras, leopards and birds of prey.

The workshop included lunch (I had fish pie, one of my favourites) and ‘behind the scenes’ access to a number of specially designed photography stations so that we could view the cats close-up.  As I peered through one of the lens ports, my feline senses tingled as the stunningly striped Aysha came trotting through the water towards me.  She was very inquisitive when she picked up my scent and looked enquiringly at me with her bold black and orange eyes before deciding that the water was far more interesting and splashing off in another direction.   Aysha is a playful 16 year old currently enjoying her retirement at the Zoo along with her brother Diamond, a laid-back boy like me.

 

Lions are one of the most iconic animals in the world and they are quite sociable in comparison to many of the other big cats that roam the plains of Africa.  I tried to get a few shots of Casper but he was being quite standoffish that day so I turned my attention to Charlie Brown, a tawny lion with a gentle spirit who gazed idly towards me before turning his attention to a noise coming from across the way.  It was Aysha huffing and chuffing with joy as she scampered towards a jet of water flowing from a hosepipe.  The keepers were in the enclosure playing with the tigers who seemed to love the sound and feel of the water being splattered around.  Then it was feeding time and the keepers placed whole pieces of meat tied to various items such as a barrel or a log into the enclosure, making mealtime a bit more of a challenge for these hungry hunters and helping to keep them stimulated.

 

We also had a special treat when we got the opportunity to actually go inside one of the enclosures.  Not with the tigers though!  Probably not a good idea!  But with the ring-tailed lemurs, a good-natured bunch of primates that come from Southern Madagascar and spend most of their time in trees.  It was quite funny being in the pen and looking out at the on-lookers looking in!  One of the visitors was overheard saying that the lemurs must be a type of monkey and Michelle (one of the alpha females of the group) was not amused.  Apparently lemurs are prosimians, a sub-group of primates that include tarsiers and bushbabies.  They lack the dexterity of monkeys and apes but they do have specially adapted eyes that enhance their night vision.  They certainly considered themselves to be more evolved, but I’m not so sure.  Don’t tell Michelle!

Shad does Paradise Wildlife Park

The weatherman said it would be sunny and dry on Sunday so despite the cold, John and I wrapped ourselves up in woolly scarves and hats and headed outdoors.  As we cruised along the M25 that morning, there was not a glimpse of sun in sight.  But we were past the point of no return and had already paid £2 at the Dartford Tunnel, so we decided to press on, in true British fashion!  We found a nice spot in the car park and dashed out of the car with full bladders in need of relief before standing in the short queue to get our tickets.  A large grey fluffy sausage on a stick caught my eye and it turned out to be a boom pole with a microphone attached to the end.  It was being carried by a small camera crew who were with a group of people that included a very minor celebrity, David Van Day from Dollar, taking the private tour experience.

We wandered in through the gates to an enclosure close by and I felt the spirit of the wilderness as we came face to face with the grey wolves.  There are apparently almost 40 subspecies of wild dogs including Arctic and Arabian wolves and the dingo, and they occupy a range of habitats including Arctic tundra, prairies and forests.  Young grey wolves are born blind and deaf in dens and rely on their mothers as well as support from the pack for warmth and food.  Grey wolves once had the largest natural distribution of any mammal except humans but unfortunately they can no longer claim this record as they have been lost from much of their former lands.

Opposite the wolves was one of my most handsome and dignified big cat cousins, the white tiger.  Despite the grey skies and drizzle, I felt all warm and fuzzy inside as I gazed in appreciation at this beautiful beast.  The white tiger’s history is sad and thorny because they have been in-bred by unscrupulous breeders out to make money from exhibiting them and they have sadly suffered physical abnormalities as a result.  They are rare in the wild and I don’t know about this particular tiger’s past, but its cream tones and chocolate brown stripes made it unusual and stunning to look at.  We watched him sitting calmly in his enclosure when one of the camels across the way started snorting and honking and it caught the tiger’s attention, so he trotted off to the other side of his paddock to investigate.

The camels were amusing, with their long knobbly legs, goofy teeth and gangly stance, and I heard a passer-by crack a joke about one of them getting the ‘ump!  Oh dear.  These camels had two humps which store fat for use as energy when food is scarce.  A camel can go a week or more without water and can last several months without food.  But you’d think the meerkats wouldn’t last five minutes without food the way they tucked into their grub when the keeper was feeding them.  These happy little creatures were a pleasure to watch and clearly enjoyed living in groups, chirping and grumbling at each other, playing together and cuddling.  Here’s a picture of one of them warming his belly under the heat lamp.

John and I needed to warm up too so we sat in the Tiger Tree Café for a while to shelter from the rain and dry off a bit.  Don’t worry, John didn’t get his belly out!  The café overlooked the tiger enclosure which contained 3 handsome tigers who were quite frisky, hopping across their wooden climbing frame and teasing each other.  I could hear these little low-pitched rumbles as they constantly chatted with each other, playfully growling and huffing.

The highlight had to be the white lion pride which consisted of a noble majestic male with full mane, 2 females and a lovely young cub who was born earlier this year. The pride sat together in their enclosure looking relaxed and contented whilst the male prowled back and forth, letting the onlookers know that he was in charge. He looked at me as he ambled towards the front of the enclosure where I was standing and I puffed my little chest out as much as could, so he climbed up the rock hill and thundered this almighty roar that reverberated in my ears. I imagined how that booming noise must rumble across the safari plains of his native environment of South Africa, letting all predators know that he is the king of the jungle. He looked just like Simba from the Lion King.