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!