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When I told people I was going to stay at London Zoo for the night in its new lodge next to the lions, the most common reaction was “Oh my, aren’t you scared?”. And while fear hadn’t crossed my mind, I did have another doubt. I have mixed feelings about zoos. A huge part of me feels saddened when I see animals behind bars, but I’m also well aware of the important conservation work that many zoos do and the wonder they inspire in children and adults alike. I already knew that ZSL London Zoo is renowned for its work around the world, so I decided to accept the invite and see what it was all about. We went on the family night and took two of my cousin’s children along (ages 11 and 13).
The Gir Lion Lodge, where we stayed, is part of the new Land of the Lions exhibit, which is designed to tell the story of Asiatic lions – how they live and the conservationists trying to save them. It’s a colourful place, filled with tuk tuks and bright murals, made to look like the Indian village of Sassan Gir where people live right next to the lions. The lion enclosure itself covers 2,500 square metres and has been modelled on the lions’ habitat, featuring 46 species of plant and 47 trees. It’s the most immersive zoo exhibit I’ve ever come across.
Just steps from the lions is the lodge, a collection of nine bright and colourful huts, made to look like the guesthouses in India’s Gir Forest. The inside, however, is luxurious and modern with comfy beds, fluffy towels, tea and coffee, and an en-suite bathroom. There’s also a sofa bed, big enough for two children to share. But the most exciting thing of all is that you’re in roaring distance of the lions – we were all enthralled to hear them as we got ready to sleep.
Staying at London Zoo for the night isn’t cheap. It costs from £438 for two adults and two children on a family night. But this doesn’t just include accommodation. There’s a full programme, starting at 6pm and ending at 10am the next day. This includes welcome drinks, dinner, breakfast, and three guided after-hours walks around the zoo where you get the opportunity to feed some of the animals and go behind the scenes of zoo life. You can also visit the zoo for the whole day on both the day of your arrival and departure. Tickets to the zoo for a family of four cost around £75 per day, and considering the cost of accommodation in central London, the price starts to look more reasonable, although still firmly in the realm of treats.
Aside from sleeping so close to the lions, the thing that made the experience so special, particularly for our young guests, was the behind-the-scenes aspect of it all. We walked around the zoo while no-one else was there; we fed warthogs, pygmy hippos and aardvarks; listened for bats; saw the lions through night vision googles; had a tour of the vegetarian kitchen where the animals’ meals are prepared each day; and were able to ask endless questions of the guides. It was an experience filled with memorable moments.
And through it all, our guides’ focus was always on explaining the good that ZSL London Zoo does. They told us that the real work of ZSL is conservation and the zoo is the face of that, where they educate and engage the public. We learned about its Asiatic Lions campaign, which is working with the Gujarat Forest Department and Wildlife Institute of India to support ongoing conservation work, including training local vet teams, improving breeding centres and teaching the public, both in the UK and India, about the importance of conservation. Other projects that we heard about included pangolin conservation in Cameroon and Thailand; sloth conservation in Panama; and Sumatran tigers in Indonesia. In all, ZSL works in over 40 countries worldwide. It’s good and inspiring work, and it was particularly heartening to see the young children ask questions about the welfare of animals.
But was all this enough to quash my qualms about zoos? On one hand, it reinforced and taught me lots of new things about all the positives that zoos do. I was impressed and inspired by ZSL’s conservation work, and the animals are clearly well cared for. But I’m not sure I could ever wholeheartedly endorse zoos, even the good ones. I’ll likely always feel uneasy about the basic concept of captivity. I’d like it if we lived in a world where we could all afford to go on safari and see animals in their natural habitat. But while we can’t, and while children and adults need to be educated and inspired about the importance of conservation, I think experiences like staying at the Gir Lion Lodge at London Zoo are a great way to engage people. I know that our party of four left inspired.
What do you think? Would you stay the night at a zoo?