My sister Helen loves penguins. I mean, obviously – who doesn’t love penguins? They’re adorable. But I think she chose her favourite wisely. Every time we see penguins at the zoo, they’re out and about, showing off their funny walk, having a swim or occasionally doing something like this.
Unfortunately, me being me, I had to go and fall in love with an animal that rarely shows its face, and even if it does, might just turn its back, spray you with something unmentionable and walk away. (Ok, one time that happened – but I’m not likely to forget it in a hurry.)
And that’s why when we go to visit Helen’s favourite, we get photos like this:
Whereas with mine, it’s more like this (on a good day):
So you can imagine my excitement when my sister got me a tiger encounter for Christmas. It’s obviously pretty popular because I had to wait nine months to get in, but it was completely worth the wait.
The encounter was at Port Lympne Wild Animal Park near Hythe in Kent, part of the Aspinall Foundation, and began with me signing a form that said if I got my fingers bitten off, it wasn’t the keeper’s fault. This was my first clue that the encounter was going to be any more than going a little bit closer than everyone else and hearing a few fun facts about tigers.
It soon became clear it was quite a lot more. Not only were we able to stand inches from the two gorgeous Bengal tigers, Delhi and Calcutta (I had to resist a strong urge to reach through the wire fence and stroke them), but we were given the opportunity to feed them by hand through the bars, something I never thought I’d be able to do.
In theory it was very simple; put the meat through the bars, not your fingers. But when two 160kg tigers, who haven’t been fed for four days, are flinging themselves against the fence, growling and trying to get at you, it’s easy to forget what you’re meant to be doing. Nobody in our group did lose any fingers, but it was a bit close a couple of times – including one memorable occasion when I was feeding both tigers at once and forgot to move my right hand after the meat was gone. There’s nothing like looking up to find a hungry tiger snapping at your fingers to make you move fast.
But nearly losing a hand aside (not to mention getting fairly liberally sprayed with tiger slobber), it was an amazing experience, and definitely something I’d do again – if only because at least that way I actually get to see a whole tiger, and not just the rear end of one disappearing into the bushes.
Thank you to my sister Helen, both for the Christmas present and for the photos. Unfortunately the idea of a ‘feeding the tiger’ selfie didn’t occur to me until afterwards. Doh!
Oh – and I have it on good authority (my mum’s) that the Port Lympne gorilla encounter is really good too.