Posted by: Andrew Skelton | 28/01/2012

Whatchyoutalkin’about Willis?

Siberian Lynx, originally uploaded by

Wow… Dear Reader… that’s all I can say… wow… No, really, that really is as much as I can say at the moment (I can hear cheering again), today has been beyond words, but as you know by now, my Friend, I like a challenge so let’s see if we can find some words from beyond “beyond”.

The drive down to Dartmoor Zoo was a long one to say the least; the 200 miles made seemingly longer by innumerable sets of road works. Limited to 50mph, rather than erm… let’s say (a Gentlemen’s agreement) 70mph the road in front of me seemed endless but arrive I finally did to find a packed car park at the zoo. Announcing myself at the entrance, I was directed to the Restaurant to meet my friend and contact, George, the Business Manager. The hustle and bustle in the Jaguar Restaurant that greeted me as I stepped over the threshold was quite astounding when you consider we’re still in the winter season, which normally is rather quiet for a zoo (this is a hint, go to your local zoo they still need to feed their animals whether the sun is at it’s best – plus you’ll be getting close to the natural world (or the REAL world as I heard today on the radio – stock, share, buy, sell, ipod, ipad… none of that is REAL – that’s the unreal world)). I managed to tear George away for a quick chat and then went out with The Big Gun to see see what photos I could take. With the machinations of today, the discussion of the photos I took seems rather benal, I still can’t believe what a fantastic day it was – the photos were just a bonus (and a good one at that).

I spent quite a while talking to a Student from Plymouth University who was monitoring Sita the Cheetah’s behaviour for her Thesis – a kindred spirit who’s love of wildlife echo’d mine even if the mention of some 80’s bands was more a journey into Ancient History for her. When returning to the restaurant, I bumped into Ben, the zoo owner and again it was like bumping into an old friend. He told me that a photographer from the Mail on Sunday was there and that he was about to go up and work with the tigers, and did I want to tag a long… does the Pope **** in the woods? So at 5pm as most people were leaving I found myself discussing wildlife with two (more) wildife-philes and going “behind the scenes” into the tiger house to get up close and personal with the biggest of the big cats, Siberian (Amur) Tigers. Ben has a real rapor with them, and they’re like big pussy cats in his presence (he has a theory that they have a long term plan and are just waiting for the chance when he becomes lunch, dinner or tea). We spent an hour in which Les, the Mail’s photograph worked effortlessly with Ben and the tigers (it was wonderful seeing him at work) and I’m sure that for that hour a grin was permanently plastered across my face. When we returned to the restaurant, and Les was about to leave his shook my hand, told me how to “look him up” and said if I want to go out with him at any time, if he could help – to drop him a line. Writing this, hours later, I still have a tear in my eye at such warmth and kindness from a fellow ‘tog.

I then spend another 30 minutes talking to Ben – Ben Mee…. Ben “I’ve had Matt Damon play me in a film” Mee. If my facial muscles had thought about relaxing after the previous encounter.. then the thought was a fleeting one. My lottery numbers may not have come up for the Euro Millions, but I have riches beyond compare in other ways.

I’ve said before, but it’s worth repeating, that whenever I return to Dartmoor Zoo, I always feel like I’m returning home to family. It does help that I now know a lot of the staff but as with good friendship, returning after an prolonged absence it’s like I was only there yesterday (perhaps I should move closer so that it could be only yesterday since I was last there!).

So, I’m sitting in a hotel bar, warmed by a bar meal and a beer looking forward to tomorrow (slightly worried that I may not get the same endorphin hit as I got today) and hoping it all goes to plan.. and I do, as the great sage of our time Hannibal Smith would say, love it when a plan comes together.


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