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Lords, lemurs and Western Lowland gorillas
Howletts Wild Animal Park (Kent)
Member Name: Praskipark
Howletts Wild Animal Park (Kent)
Date: 27/12/10, updated on 28/12/10 (379 review reads)
Advantages: An animal park that has innovative enclosures, friendly staff, beautiful grounds
Disadvantages: A little off the beaten track
Last Christmas we wanted to do something different for our son as a present and as he has always loved gorillas since he was a small boy we decided, through the help of the Aspinall Foundation, to adopt a Western Lowland gorilla for him. His adopted gorilla's name was Djumbah and from his gorilla profile he seemed a bit of a character. For one thing, he didn't like bananas which is very unusual. About May of last year we received an e-mail from the foundation to say that Djumbah had been transported to a zoo in Budapest for breeding purposes. At first we were a bit sad because this meant that Djumbah would no longer be the responsibility of the zoo in Kent and perhaps we would lose contact with him. On the other hand, one of the functions of the zoo is to protect animals such as the West Lowland gorillas from harm, introduce breeding projects so eventually the animals can be returned to their natural habitats and be rehabilitated. Because Djumbah would be in Budapest the Aspinall foundation asked us if we would like to adopt another gorilla and of course, we said yes. My son's new adopted gorilla is called Oundi and she is one of the youngest, if not the youngest, gorilla at Howlett's. Oundi was born in February 2006 which makes her 4 years old
In September of this year we decided to visit the family in UK and my son thought it would be an excellent idea to go to Kent to visit the zoo and actually see Oundi. My only concern was - how would we recognise her - don't all gorillas look the same?
How did we find Howlett's Zoo?
Locating the zoo was a simple operation. We were staying in Peckham at the time so decided to catch a National Coach from Victoria station to Canterbury. The zoo is about three miles from Canterbury in a village called Bekesbourne. We jumped on a train at Canterbury station going to Dover Priory and got off at the first stop. Trains run every hour and the journey takes about 4 minutes.
For some reason, we thought there would be a mini bus waiting to pick visitors up from the rail station but couldn't see any vehicle that could fit this description. As it was a reasonably bright September morning we thought we would take a chance and walk to the zoo although there was a big black cloud in the distance. Leaving the station we turned left and walked a few metres to a main road. This is where we bumped into the local postman; a nice friendly chap who asked us if we were going to Howlett's. When we replied yes, he said that it was a long walk especially with a pram and the road was dangerous. It would be best to go back to the station and wait for the mini bus. Apparently there was a board with the information giving a telephone number to phone. We phoned the number and explained we were waiting and was it possible to be picked up. Within minutes an old beaten up Volvo appeared outside the station gates and as a joke I said, 'Oh, look! Here's our taxi.' I was thinking of all the Gerald Durrell books I had read and the beaten up Mercedes with the Greek taxi driver who used to chauffeur the Durrell family around. I really didn't think this clapped out vehicle was our 'mini-bus.' Then a voice said, 'Are you going to Howlett's? Jump in.' The mini-bus was in the garage being repaired. I couldn't help but smile. Our 'chauffeur' was a lovely man and very talkative. He told us about the busy road and all about the Zoo and said that when we were ready to leave if we went to the main reception and he wasn't there to ask for Joe, someone would find him and he would drive us back.
Before I go any further, let me mention John Aspinall.........
It turns out he was a bit of an eccentric. He was born in India in 1926, had a public school education that didn't turn out too successful, being thrown out of one school due to a low concentration span and failing to sit his final exams at Oxford due to the fact he loved horseracing and gambling more. In his adult years he became a bookie but was only allowed to take legal bets on horse racing. This didn't stop him from gambling illegally and often set up gambling parties for the 'toffs' in rented houses while his mother bribed the local police officers. The one time she forgot to pay off the police was when he was hosting a party at Howlett's where he was then living and this ended in the party being raided and broken up by the police. Aspinall took this case of harassment to court and won the case.
So where did his love of animals come from?
According to Wiki, his love of wild animals stemmed from reading a book about a Zulu Prince who left his family tribe to live in the wild amongst the animals. While living in Eaton Place, Aspinall or Aspers as he was also called, housed 2 brown bears, a tiger and a Capuchin monkey in a shed in the garden . He later purchased the attractive country house and private land in Kent which consists of 90 acres and opened Howlett's Zoo to visitors. This was the beginning of the story of the John Aspinall Foundation and Howlett's Zoo. Later, another zoo for endangered species was opened at Hythe in Kent and is called Port Lympne.
Reception and admission
After leaving the old jalopy we went straight into reception which is a large room with a till and counter plus several shelves filled with books and 'animal goodies' like soft toys, games, wooden toys and jigsaws, sweets and soft drinks. We only had to purchase two admission tickets as my son had a free ticket due to him having adopted a gorilla. Price of each ticket was £16.95 . My granddaughter who is 18 months old didn't have to pay anything. At first, I thought the ticket was a bit expensive but afterwards at the end of the visit I changed my mind. It is good value. We were given a map and a discount voucher for the other animal park, Port Lympne. Reception staff were polite and friendly.
Forward March - On to the enclosures and the gorillas etc
The entrance to the enclosures is at the back of reception and all of us couldn't wait to find the gorilla enclosures. The first one we came to was huge and glass fronted with many ropes cascading from the roof. Swings made from tyres were placed in strategic points so the gorillas can play and exercise. The floor of the enclosure was covered in a thick mattress of hay/straw and the environment looked a clean and healthy one. Some of the young gorillas were sleeping while the Silverback male was grooming himself. They are such beautiful creatures - we just stood and stared for ages. The construction of each enclosure has been well thought out and is created on the social structure in the wild. Generally, gorillas live in groups consisting of one male, several females and their young. The primate enclosures here at Howlett's accommodate family groups as well as other male gorillas who don't have families.
At first we were trying to see if we could spot Oundi in the first enclosure but all the gorillas seemed too large. I then noticed at the end of the play enclosure an adjoining building which was the sleeping quarters. Upon this wall was a list of the gorillas in that enclosure and Oundi wasn't on the list. I did think to ask one of the keepers but at that time we couldn't find anyone.
Moving on, feeling very emotional at the sight of these giant animals we came to a few enclosures joined together and it was here we saw Oundi's name. We picked her out straight away as she was the smallest of the baby gorillas. I can't really explain how I felt as I was so overcome with a wave of happiness and I looked at my son and he just seemed transfixed looking at her. It was a lovely moment and very emotional. She looked very happy, sat on the floor picking at the straw looking for bits of food that had been dropped. At one time she jumped on the ropes and swung high into the air and then fell on her friend and together they rolled and romped around in play fighting. A very special moment.
Western Lowland gorillas are not the only primates at the zoo. You can see Gelada Gibbons who are always entertaining, Grizzled Leaf Monkeys, Heck's Macaque, Java Gibbon and a very cheeky breed of monkey known as a Javan Langur. This breed have two very distinctive colour forms - jet, silky black and a bright orangey ginger colour. I sat and watched these critters for a long time as they are so agile, make a lot of noise and are quite naughty.
Another favourite family enclosure was one that housed the black and white ruffed lemurs. This was an open enclosure but before entering we had to wash our hands with a special antibacterial gel and leave all bags, coats etc in a sort of cloakroom. There was a park attendant on hand if we needed to ask questions. There are 11 lemurs at Howlett's but we only saw about 5 and they were curled into tight balls asleep. The others must have been in hiding in the trees. I wanted to say 'Come on, you lazy lemurs, wake up.' They are such furry creatures with piercing eyes. They always look astonished.
One animal that I can never believe the actual size of when seeing it eye to eye is the African elephant. They are really massive creatures and in the zoo here have a very large enclosure to stroll around in. I think this was one of the last enclosures we visited - well, stood outside and peered in. The elephants were gently walking around but then a crack of thunder hit the skies and there was a torrential shower of rain. At this moment they started to move a bit quicker and it was quite exciting watching the herd get together and stomp their way out of the rain. We decided to follow suit and make a quick dash for an empty marquee.
Being a cat fan it is always exciting to see the big cats and the tigers are impressive. I think the most beautiful species has to be the Sumatran tiger. He is the smallest of the tiger species alive today and what makes these tigers stand out is the dark markings on their coats and the colour of their coats - a cross between bright orange, red with a touch of yellow. They have a furry ruffle around their necks and very long whiskers. Although, these creatures are wonderful they are extremely strong and can be very dangerous . There is a monument erected to two zoo keepers who were mauled and killed by this species of tiger. Howlett's has a reputation of encouraging keepers to get close to their animals which can be viewed as a good idea if a little unorthodox but remember, these are wild animals and at any time can turn nasty.
I have only covered a few of the animal species kept in the zoo but if you would like to see and read more about the animals then you can log on to the zoo's website. I will leave a link at the bottom of the page. The zoo was very quiet when we visited - I would say that about only 20 other visitors where there which was nice for us as we could stroll around in our own time and not feel claustrophobic stood in queues etc.
Walkways and other facilities
Walking around the animal park is a wonderful experience as the grounds are really beautiful with many wooded areas consisting of very tall trees. The time of year we visited was the time when you don't know what clothing to wear because the sun keeps darting in and out of the trees. One minute we were cold and the next minute our coats were being taken off and thrown underneath the pram. The trails for walking which lead from one enclosure to the next are expansive and I loved the feeling of so much space and a sense of freedom. I was particularly knocked out by the grounds - so spacious and elegantly landscaped. As always I imagined living in the country house which from the exterior seemed to be in excellent condition and being able to walk around my gardens and woods like Lady of the Manor. The whole park is beautifully cared for and a fine example of a zoo and country park.
Toilet stations are dotted all through the park and are clean and very people friendly.
Cafes range from small kiosks which just sell soft drinks, coffee, tea and sandwiches to larger inside establishments with tables and chairs. These generally sell cakes, ice creams, light lunches and hot drinks. You don't have to eat inside if you choose not to as there are many wooden tables placed under trees for you to take food out or bring your own picnic food. We took our own food and had a very enjoyable lunch sat outside listening to the birds in the trees and the various noises from the wild animals.
I did come across one very large restaurant, the Pavillion Restaurant, which had a slight canteen feel to it. I went in to use the toilets but had a look round. Food is self service and from the smell chips were high up on the menu. There is also a vegetarian menu which states that ingredients used are locally sourced. There are refrigerated cabinets with cold desserts and cream cakes in but they looked a bit artificial to me. On the walls were prints of animals such as tigers and elephants - obviously animals that are kept at Howlett's. I should imagine in summer this restaurant will be packed out with families.
Children's play area
The play area is large and well structured made from wood and carpeted in soft barkdust. My granddaugter liked the swings and the roundabout which is brightly coloured painted in blue and yellow. There are climbing frames for older children, slides and swing ropes so little children can pretend to be naughty monkeys!
I don't know whether it is my imagination but there seemed to be a lot of gift shops situated throughout the park. They are very jolly inside though and the various goods on sale are well made, bright and cheerful. I think there is probably something for everyone who has a love of wildlife and conservation. All profits from the shops go to a great cause - saving endangered species and help towards the running of Howlett's animal park.
I think I've covered everything or at least told you about my experience. If you want to know more about John Aspinall and his trust, Howlett's Animal Park and how to adopt an animal please take a look at the website: http://www.aspinallfoundation.org/howletts/
It was a great day out for my little family and a very emotional one. It is one of the best animal parks I have visited mainly because of the spacious and creative enclosures. The grounds were wild but stunning and everyone we came into contact and spoke with were very friendly but then people from Kent generally are. It was a pleasure to visit Howlett's and next year we will probably visit the other zoo in Kent, Port Lympne.
Summary: A great day out for all the family
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