One of the most undervalued experiences one can have is a visit to the zoo.
There’s nothing quite like an up-close encounter, and I’ve been lucky enough to experience a few over the years. Most recently with red pandas at Wellington Zoo.
As a kid, I only have vague memories of going along to Auckland Zoo, which was around a half hour drive from where I grew up.
It wasn’t until a trip to Singapore in 2011 when we went to the Night Safari that I realised how cool zoos are. You can walk inside certain enclosures with birds (or in this case bats and flying squirrels) roaming above.
Within a couple of days of my return, I went to Auckland Zoo and probably took as many photos as I had overseas.
Around a year and a half later I had my first visit to Wellington Zoo. I still remember my impression (mostly because Facebook reminds me): “Awesome”. I took a few photos and watched on as a huge Kiwi had its beak operated on at The Nest Te Kōhanga.
The following year I moved to Hamilton and found myself living within a 10 minute drive of their zoo. I was working in radio at the time and we ran a couple of promotions around their Face2Face encounters. As part of this, they invited me to go along to experience them for myself.
The first encounter was with their Sumatran Tigers.
At the time the cost was just $15 on top of your usual zoo entry (this has since increased to $20) which is incredibly cheap for such a unique experience. I couldn’t believe more people didn’t take them up on this. And it’s great to know that 10% of the fee helps endangered animals in the wild through their conservation fund.
In 2015, around six months after red panda cubs were born at Hamilton Zoo, I was fortunate enough to go into their enclosure to film a video and get audio for my radio show, so I could encourage our listeners to help name the twins. At one point I was surrounded by seven pandas, including the cubs! Magic!
I have since had an encounter with the Southern White Rhinoceros and Black and White Ruffed Lemurs at Hamilton Zoo. Both were really interesting but vastly different experiences. Feeling the different textures of a Rhino’s skin is incredible. And there’s nothing quite like being surrounded, and clamoured on, by hungry lemurs looking for treats!
I highly rate Hamilton Zoo. I bought an annual pass while I was living close by, and it more than paid for itself. I took a few people along and all were impressed by the layout and beauty of the zoo. It’s nestled within so much greenery, it’s easy to forget that the main roads are still just minutes away.
Some days I would go after work or when I had a free afternoon and just sit by my favourite enclosures to take photos, and often ended up pointing out where the animals were hiding to other visitors.
In 2014, I went to Chicago and made the effort to catch a bus out to Lincoln Park Zoo. Incredibly this is a free park, much like I’d read about in children’s books. While a lovely zoo, it made me realise how lucky we are in New Zealand. Despite the enclosures/cages being to international standards, they seemed so small (and kind of depressing) compared to what we have at home. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat saddened by the visit. Photos here.
New Zealand zoos seem more inviting, open and in best keeping with what the animals’ natural habitat would be like.
Since moving to Wellington two years ago I have so far gone to the local zoo three times (all within the last six months to be honest), including having an encounter with their red pandas last weekend.
I’m a huge fan of red pandas. I have an album of photos on my phone and follow many accounts on Instagram (it’s practically squeal-worthy every time I open the app).
One of the twins born at Hamilton Zoo, Khusi, now lives in Wellington and became a mum just before Christmas.
This means there are now four red pandas at the zoo including dad Sundar, and senior male panda Manasa. Due to the new arrival, my encounter was with just the two males.
Red panda encounters at Wellington Zoo are for a maximum of four people and last around half an hour.
We started out in Sundar’s enclosure and were provided pillows to sit on, and the option for a blanket (in case you’re wary of panda claws on your legs; we denied the offer) there is a seating area in front of onlookers that we were directed to.
Each person was handed some grapes and pears, and Sundar quickly ventured from the trees to walk across our laps and enjoy his treats. I had watched an encounter previously in August, and Sundar came across rather bolshy while sharing snacks with Khusi. He’s totally charming though with his big personality and youthfulness.
We are encouraged to sit still and let the pandas come to us, but are allowed to gently touch their fur, and even their ears and tails.
Our keeper was fantastic at taking photos for the group and answering our questions, while also speaking further on conservation efforts to help protect red pandas. There’s thought to be only around 10,000 left in the wild. If you want to learn more and help out, I recommend supporting Red Panda Network.
Wellington Zoo also donate 10% of proceeds from all Close Encounters to help save animals in the wild through projects supported by the Wellington Zoo Conservation Fund.
Next we moved through to Manasa’s space. Initially asleep at the top of one of his favourite tree, we were advised that he may not choose to come see us (in which case we would return to Sundar, who would be more than happy to eat the remaining fruit).
As a senior panda, Manasa seemed to be less tempted by treats, but after around five minutes he walked through the bush, up onto our laps and picked out the grapes from our open palms. His personality seems so much softer and patient than Sundar. He was almost like a rather large gentle cat.
Red pandas can’t retract their claws in those soft-padded paws, so when they hold your wrist to steady your fruit-filled palm you can feel their pressure. There’s no pain, it’s more like the feeling of fingernails lightly pressing down, but it could be something to let young children be aware of.
I hope to meet my favourite red panda, Khusi, at a future encounter. We’ll likely see her and cub around April.
Red Panda encounters are booked out well in advance, particularly for weekends. There are also Lion, Meerkat, Giraffe, Lemur and Cheetah encounters in Wellington. All are quite popular and can be booked online. Pricing is $99 ($150 for Cheetah) and zoo entry is included in the fee. Wellington Zoo has Sleepovers available too.
In Hamilton, there are Lemur, Reptile, Rhino and Siamang encounters. They are either $20 if purchased on the day, or for $100 you can book at least 48 hours in advance for a group of up to five ($20 for each person thereafter). Pricing for both is on top of zoo entry (from $11-$23). This is the best value of any zoo I’ve come across.
In Auckland, they have Kiwi, Galápagos tortoise, squirrel monkey and red panda experiences, ranging in price from $75 to $220 (some pricing is for up to 2 people). They also have Safari Nights, Photography Workshops and more.
All zoos have annual passes and gift card options which I recommend. It’s a great place for photographers as well as animal lovers, and is surprisingly good for your fitness as you wander about. I noticed Hamilton Zoo in particular was popular with mums of young children, as they could picnic there and easily push prams around the large walkways.