#32 Orana Wildlife Park

Years is not a large enough term to state how long I’ve wanted to go to Orana Wildlife Park for. Decades is a better word. With my new commitment to nocrastination – I made it there!

Was. Not. Disappointed.

Set on 80 hectares of stunning landscape outside of Christchurch, the Park has been in operation for 40 years, and is New Zealand’s only open range zoo. Open range. My kind of zoo. Let the animals wander free, and chuck the humans in a cage. Nice.

I treated myself to two of the animal encounters – the lemurs and the lions. Yes, yes, I know – it’s not always PC these days to engage in these activities. “Let the animals go free!”, the activists call. “Animals are not toys. Return them to the wild!” the people in their vegan T-shirts yell.

Look – in an ideal world, there would be no zoos. The animals would all be running free and living out their lives in the wild. But … we no not live in an ideal world. We live in a world of humans.

We live in a world where a group of starving villagers see the immediate value of a dead tiger, not the long term value of a living tiger and eco-tourism. A dead tiger is tangible and has a known value. They can exchange it’s cold dead body for cash and food, and keep their kids alive for another week. All while the privileged activists in the west, who have never had to watch their child die for the sake of medicine they can’t afford worth $5, call them evil, and campaign for an immediate end to a culture and lifestyle they’ve sustained for generations.

Are zoos evil? Some, yes, surely. But others, like Orana … I believe serve an important purpose, both in conservation, and education. Conservation because, let’s face it, an animal is much safer in a zoo than out there in the wild. Education because, as a former wildlife park volunteer for four years, I’ve seen the impact of an encounter.

The park I worked at was small and local. Birds, lizards, guinea pigs, and rabbits,. The most exotic animal we had was the owner’s Neapolitan Mastiff – that the ankle biters thought was a lion. We took in injured animals, caring for them, rehabilitating them, and releasing them to the wild. Over the course of my time there, we cared for several injured little blue penguins.

During school holidays, I’d run 15 minute sessions called Penguin Paddles. We’d bring out Kiko (short for Kikorangi, the Maori word for blue), and I’d give a 10-minute talk about little blue penguins. (‘Kiko’ was played by several different birds. Shhhhh – don’t tell the kids.)

I’d tell the kids how a group of penguins is called a raft at sea, and a waddle on land. I’d tell them about their feeding and breeding habits. And I’d ask how many of them had a dog. Most did. So, I’d tell them about how much damage a dog could do to a little blue penguin. Death, mostly.

For the last five minutes, we’d let the kids stroke the penguin. DOC would be horrified. Kiko loved it. The kids loved it. Often, kids would queue for 15 minutes before Penguin Paddles to make sure they had that encounter. And we’re not talking about them picking the bird up and cuddling the bird.

We’re talking about a pat on the head, maybe a stroke on the wing. For most kids – a two-second interaction was enough to make their eyes glow with excitement. And you knew … you knew … they’d do whatever they could to protect penguins the rest of their lives. You knew they’d keep the dog on the lead at the beach. You knew they’d forever remember that encounter, and respect that animal.

This is the key value in zoos, and animals encounters, that the activists are so against. And as for ‘freeing’ a ‘trapped’ animal and releasing it to the wild, after 10, 15, 20+ years in a zoo … really? That’s like taking a human who lives in Manhatten and dropping them in the Amazon, and saying, “Rejoice, you’re free!”

“Zoos are money-making scams,” cry those who know no better. They’re really not. The majority of humans I met working at Orana Park are volunteers. They’ve given up countless hours of their lives to improve and make better the life of the animals they care for. It’s made their lives richer, yes, but not in the way the tunnel-vision activists think.

The best way to get a feel for Orana Park upon arrival is to do a complete loop (or two) of the park on the little open air shuttles. Once you’ve got your bearings, you can hop on and hop off, to see what you want.

If you’ve booked animal encounters, I do suggest finding where they are well before the due time. The maps are … not overly helpful, and the signposts confusing. The best way is to ask other people if they’ve seen the animals you’re looking for.

I scored well on the lemur encounter. Accommodating four humans, for four lemurs, the day I went (a cold, crisp, but cloudless winter’s day in chilly Christchurch), I was the only mug who’d signed up. So … I had all four lemurs to myself. Such delightful critters. I had a great plan to give a piece of food to each one in turn. Mum was having none of that. It was more like, a piece for Mum, a piece for Dad, a piece for Mum, a piece for kid 1, a piece for Mum, a piece for kid 2 – and then Mum would try to grab the entire bowl. Bless her.

The second encounter was the chuck-the-humans-in-a-cage drive through lion encounter – which was brilliant. I’ve previously been a volunteer at a lion and tiger park, so have a strong affinity for the big cats. The encounter was spectacular – and a unique way of seeing the kitties from below when they jump on the top of the cage. Stunning.

Winter is a great time to visit Orana Park. Less humans. There were about 50 people queued up to feed the giraffes. I asked a volunteer what the queue was like in summer. “See that tree down there?” That one. “No – that one .. at the end of the road.” Oh. Wow. That tree was a long way away. Another bonus is – the animals are more active than they would be in a stifling Christchurch summer.

For full details and more advice on planning a trip, visit www.oranawildlifepark.co.nz

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