Who's been eating my porridge? Banham Zoo unveils new animal experiences
PUBLISHED: 12:27 13 August 2019 | UPDATED: 12:27 13 August 2019
From rubbing a sea lion's belly to feeding a monkey porridge, the new animal experiences at Banham Zoo are more than just a chance to get up close with some amazing animals - they help to deliver vital health checks, too.
I don't usually get so touchy-feely with a gentleman I've just met, but Emmett is so charming it's difficult to resist. Within moments of meeting, we've looked into eachother's eyes, held hands (flippers) and I've even given him a well-deserved belly rub.
In case you hadn't guessed, Emmett is one of five Californian sea lions at Banham Zoo's Sea Lion Bay, and the star of the latest on-the-day animal experiences which allow visitors a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the animal kingdom's famous faces.
The zoo is managed by the Zoological Society of East Anglia (ZSEA) and, along with its sister site, Africa Alive!, offers a range of hands-on animal experiences which can be pre-booked or purchased on the day.
While the animal experiences at Banham Zoo have been running for a while - allowing you to feed, among others, an armadillo, rhinoceros iguana or even a tiger - the latest additions to the line-up offer you the chance to meet Emmett the sea lion and to feed the zoo's three black howler monkeys, Loris, Tupiza and Oruro.
Monies raised from these experiences go straight back to the charity, funding vital conservation work across the two parks and, as zookeeper Netanya Noy explains as we approach Sea Lion Bay, they have proven a great way to get people engaged with the animals.
Although Californian sea lions are not classed as endangered, they are vulnerable to conflicts with fishermen, entanglement in marine apparatus and - a problem we can all do something about - pollutant plastics. It is hoped that by allowing members of the public the chance to see these beautiful creatures up close, it will encourage us to adopt a more sustainable approach.
After a few seconds in Emmett's purpose-built enclosure, which he shares with three females, Gaia, Filippa and Ineke, it's clear that there is even more to it than that. The experiences also offer a chance to see, up close, the bond between animal and zookeeper, and to help carry out vital health checks.
"Everything we do is part of animal husbandry," says Netanya, as she leads me into the enclosure alongside three other keepers. "It allows us to check the animals for signs of illness or injury, and gets them used to being touched."
With the promise of a few fishy snacks, it doesn't take long for Emmett to get used to me. He responds to every one of Netanya's commands, and allows me to inspect his flippers, rub his belly and stroke his face.
But, as Netanya explains, there's a reason we're doing this. Touching his flippers allows you to check for any cuts or injuries, while rubbing his belly prepares him for future ultrasounds - something that would be particularly important in the case of a breeding female. Finally, getting Emmett used to having his face touched, particularly around the eyes, can help to prepare him for receiving eyedrops.
It's a genuine privilege to be this close, and for Emmett to be so trusting. He catches fish effortlessly and 'barks' on command, but despite his puppy-like expression, soft ears and thick glossy fur, he's surprisingly strong, pushing his nose against my fist and guiding my hand with his flipper.
While Emmett still has a year or so to go, fully mature male sea lions can weigh up to 350kg - three times the size of females. They eat a protein-heavy diet of fish, octopus and squid and can dive to depths of up to 400m - it's no surprise, then, that his flippers feel much denser than I expect - more muscle than blubber.
After a fond farewell to Emmett, I head over to Casa Do Howler for the second of Banham Zoo's newest animal experiences, the black howler monkeys.
On arrival, this seems something of a misnomer, as only one of the primates - the sexually mature alpha male, Oruro - is black. Netanya explains that because of breeding restrictions, Tupiza and Loris have both been castrated and are instead beige/golden brown - the same colour as females and infants.
Despite being the more dominant of the group, Oruro is actually the most timid, waiting his turn as I spoon-feed him and his brothers freshly-made porridge through the bars of the enclosure.
Tupiza and Loris are pushier, moving my hand to give them better access to the spoon. They pick at their mid-morning snack with such concentration, sometimes using their tongues and sometimes their fingers, to leave them with porridge-laden beards.
Once again, one-on-one feeding is a good way to check for signs of illness or infection. "They tend to get into scraps like all brothers do," says Netanya, "so doing this means that we can check their hands for any cuts or injuries." We do, in fact, spot one - a small graze on the fleshy bit of one of their palms, which will get checked out by another keeper later.
After snacktime, it's time to let them out into their treetops habitat - a purpose-built, unenclosed adventure playground which runs alongside the zoo's pathway. Electric fencing, below, means that there is no risk to either the howlers or to the public, and it is truly lovely to see them out and about.
While Tupiza and Loris manoeuvre themselves across the ladders using their hands and feet, Oruro has a different approach, pulling himself across like a tightrope walker, his prehensile tail acting like his own safety harness.
But it's when they get to the top of the tree that the show really begins, with all three monkeys letting out their eponymous call. It's a haunting sound - far lower in pitch than I had expected, a little like rolling thunder - and it's clear to see why these South American primates are known to have one of the loudest calls in the animal kingdom.
Howler monkeys are also known to be among the least active of the monkey species, spending up to 80pc of their day resting, so after their brief vocal performance, and a quick play, it's time for a rest. They return to their enclosure, picking up a few bits of stray porridge on the way.
On-the-day animal experiences are a great alternative to the longer and more in-depth full and half-day pre-bookable experiences. They last around 15 minutes and cost between £10-£39.50, plus zoo admission.
All on-the-day animal experiences can only be booked at Guest Information on the day of your visit and are subject to availability, weather and circumstances permitting. There are also minimum age requirements for each experience. Visit www.banhamzoo.co.uk for more information.