As Belfast Zoo prepares to celebrate its biggest birthday bash ever – the much-loved family visitor attraction turns 85 on March 30 this year – Ni4kids editor Nadia Duncan takes the kids for a walk on the wild side to meet its residents and re-discover some animal magic…

A trip to Belfast Zoo always topped my childhood chart of the most memorable family days out. Now, as a mum-of-two a few decades later, it’s actually adorable to realise that despite times (and the spectacular view of the city landscape from the top of the Antrim Road) changing dramatically, some aspects of being a kid will always stay the same – a complete fascination with and desire to get up close to some of our planet’s most amazing creatures.

Usually, when I suggest to my two cheeky monkeys that it would be a wonderful idea to put down their screens for a few hours and get out in the fresh air for a long hilly walk, I hear a couple of grunts – similar to a grumpy camel – then they try to burrow frantically into the sofa like rabbits in the hope of avoiding my hard stare and thus escaping any exercise. However, when the offer is made for a day out to Belfast Zoo, heads pop up like meerkats and they bounce happily out the door like kangaroos straight into the car – this kind of natural adventure obviously promising to be much more fun.

Belfast Zoo is open from 10am every day (except Christmas Day and Boxing Day) which means there’s somewhere ‘zooper’ to take the family all year round. On arrival, the friendly staff welcomed us with the gift of a handy map outlining all the recommended routes and a guide to thefeeding times and keeper talks to help usplan out our day. Belfast Zoo is home to more than 120 species, many of which are facing the threat of extinction, and takes part in more than 60 global and collaborative breeding programmes, several of which are managed by its own staff.

The Zoo also supports a number of in-situ conservation campaigns around the world including the Asian nature Conservation Foundation, Sifaka Conservation Trust, Bird Watch Ireland barn owl project and Lion tamarins of Brazil Fund. Its engaging education service is the perfect place for animal lovers of all ages to learn about endangered habitats and wildlife around the globe.

Like most kids, mine are completely charmed by anything creepy, slimey and cold-blooded so we kicked things off with a short stroll to the Reptile and Amphibian House, pausing only for a quick photoshoot on top of a giant tarantula (wooden thank goodness) – as you do. After lots of oohing and aahing over the Cuban tree boa, the Green iguana and their friends, we headed up the path to another one of the Zoo’s main attractions – the fabulous have a beautiful view of the small lake and flamboyance of Chilean flamingos, plus they provide a useful resting place for mums and dads to enjoy a coffee break, while keeping a watchful eye on the kids having a ball and making new friends – just watch out for the feathered ones who aren’t shy and come begging for a bite of your sandwich.

Talking of feeding time at the Zoo, if you want to make your kid’s visit extra exciting, or for a special present, the new junior keeper-for-a-day experience gives children aged eight to 16 a truly unique opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime animal encounter going behind the scenes to feed and care for some of their favourite animals. There’s always plenty to see and do on a regular visit though and to make sure we didn’t miss a thing, we left the playpark (with a pinkie promise of another pit stop there on the way back) to make tracks to see two of the ‘big ones’ on the Elephant and Giraffe walk. The lemurs had the cutest group hug ever as we walked away, obviously saddened by our departure, but it was smiles all round again by the time we reached Alice the Andean ‘spectacled’ bear around the corner.

The Rothschild’s giraffe is one of the most endangered of the nine giraffe sub-species facing a very high risk of extinction in the how incredible it is to see these elegant, glorious creatures up close and watch the interaction between them, but to quote the kids and their favourite movie, they were ‘awesome’. Next up, we were very excited to meet Asian elephants Yhetto and Dhunja.

If the zookeepers ran a public poll to ask the question, ‘What animal first comes to mind when you think of Belfast Zoo?’, the highest scoring answer would surely be an elephant – because of the fond memories of Asian elephant Tina who arrived at the Zoo in 1966, and was the longest resident before sadly passing away in November 2017 at the age of 54. And also thanks to last year’s hit movie Zoo, based on the incredible true story of Sheila the baby elephant whose female zookeeper couldn’t bear to abandon her each night during the Belfast Blitz of1941 and took her home to give her shelter and company in the backyard of her tiny terraced house.

Short history lesson and the morning over, we said our farewells and headed back down to the Lion’s Den restaurant for lunch via the meerkats, who by happy coincidence were also being fed, although while I was interested to learn they love eggs, the other items on the menu didn’t look quite so tasty (dead mouse anyone?). To be fair though they were gobbled up so quickly I didn’t have to look away long… and as you would expect the kids were both weirdly delighted and grossed out at exactly the same time – not many places you can go to achieve that effect!

More than halfway through our day we had covered less than half of the territory, so we quickened our pace, hiking straightup to the top of the Mountain walk to theMalayan sun bear and Giant anteater, then enjoyed an afternoon of amazing highlights on the way back down. One observation, apart from that the peacocks are hilarious and just randomly appear in different enclosures yet seem to escape unscathed, is that you might go to the Zoo looking forward to seeing the traditional biggies; lions, giraffes, elephants, etc. but when you get there you realise that the tiny, or unusual critters, are the ones that can steal your heart and you remember the most. I developed a soft spot for the Linne’s two- toed sloth (no I’d never heard of it before either) and a fruit bat in the Rainforest House, while the kids watched the penguins swim, completely enthralled, for at least 30 minutes before I had to drag them away for fear of being locked in for the night.

And that really is the wonderful thing about a day out at Belfast Zoo. You will be educated (in the most fun way), you will be entertained (for hours on end) and you will also be helping support and protect animals because the reality is, some species such as the pride of Barbary lions, are now extinct in the wild and are only found in zoos just like this one. So, the next time you’re searching for a fun- filled family day out with endless activities, unique learning experiences, incredible photo opportunities and long-lasting childhood memories, you really won’t find any better choice than dear old Belfast Zoo.

Don’t miss the wild celebration on Saturday 30 March as Belfast Zoo turns 85! Enjoy a range of family fun entertainment including period street theatre, live storytelling, traditional-style garden games, circus workshops and a chance to win 85 amazing prizes! Visit belfastzoo.co.uk for more information on all events and experiences.

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