Tom Neal Tacker joins the guides and handlers at Western Plains Zoo who care for some of nature's celebrities.
When meeting three Dr Dolittles in two days, I'm pretty sure we'll be talking to the animals. And not just chatting briefly but spending enough time on a two-day Zoofari Experience at Dubbo's Western Plains Zoo to really chew the fat.
My first Dr Dolittle, Helen Harris, introduces me to the behind-the-scenes activities at the zoo. I check in to my well-appointed tent at the recommended time, 3pm. The heated floor is welcome, the bushy seclusion peaceful. The accommodation area is locked at night "for security purposes".
"Is it to keep us in or the animals out?" I ask.
"Both," Harris tells me. "We lock the gate at 10pm but if you need to get out there's an emergency phone. Guards patrol the grounds and you're quite safe. It's fenced because wallabies and kangaroos have a habit of scratching at the tents and we want to ensure that you get a good night's sleep."
Formerly a psychologist, now a zoo guide, Harris has a passionate enthusiasm for animals. I ask her to nominate her favourites. The response surprises me. "Pythons," she says. "They have such distinct personalities. I have two at home. The diamond-back python wraps itself around my waist when we go for a walk." A python walk is something I've never considered.
I feel as if I'm in East Africa. My tent, one of 16, overlooks the African Plains area of the zoo. Elands and giraffes are spread against the waning light, grazing. Two white rhinos gambol beyond them. A cleverly positioned fence and landscaped embankment separate us from the animals, creating an impression of space and freedom.
The first tour begins with the Sumatran tigers. We are allowed to approach to a metre away. Shortly before our arrival, keepers hid bits of meat around the area: under logs, in tree branches, in dense grass. Watching the two young tigers hunt, using their keen senses to locate the food, is entrancing. The activity, Harris says, encourages them to use their natural instincts. "You can tell when they're bored," she says. "They need constant stimulation and we do our best to test them. These two are brother and sister, just over a year old."
The tigers obviously recognise Harris's voice. They pause between snacks, checking to see where she is. It's an extraordinary interactive moment: us watching them, them watching Harris and Harris watching us to ensure we don't get too close. I'm tempted to reach past the wire and stroke the big cats, which is forbidden, of course, but tempting nonetheless.
We visit the clan of meerkats, industriously preoccupied and cute. The small South African mammals, part of the mongoose family, peer at us with keen curiosity while Harris distracts them with vegetable snacks.
"This enclosure's walls are dug metres deep into the ground," she says. "They're expert excavators and would happily dig their way out quickly." Again I notice how closely they pay attention to Harris's voice – the Dolittle effect. I begin humming to myself: "If I could talk to the animals, learn their languages. Maybe take an animal degree ..."
Our next stop is the siamangs' home. A South-East Asian ape, the largest of the gibbon family, they live here on an island surrounded by bush. Harris says they don't swim and can't leap across the expansive water barrier. She smoothly lobs a few apples onto the island. The grey-faced, black-furred acrobats immediately begin searching for the treats. "We've been able to breed the siamangs, too," Harris says. "We're very good at match-making here. It's a great job for romantics."
Harris saves her strongest feelings, however, for Kwanze, the black rhino bull that has been key to the zoo's impressive reproductive tally. "He's just a gentle giant, really," she says, offering Kwanze a casuarina limb. She hands me a smaller branch, instructing me to offer it from below. I'm not allowed to reach over the fence as the rhino might raise his head suddenly. "He wouldn't want to hurt you but his horn is sharp and he's a very powerful animal."
I've never been so close to a black rhino before. They're famously edgy, unlike their more placid white cousins. "White rhinos are slightly larger than the black," Harris says. "The name comes from the Dutch word 'wijde', which means wide, referring to their lips. Black rhinos are browsers with pointed lips. White rhinos are grazers with cow-like lips." Kwanze pulls another branch from Harris's hand while she talks. He gazes at her with rapt attention.
During dinner in the main lodge – three courses cooked with flair and accompanied by an all-Australian wine list – conversation turns to our nocturnal safari. A guide supervisor, Todd Jenkinson, is taking us on the night tour, one of the highlights of the Zoofari Experience.
Jenkinson's passion is for the Przewalski horse, native to Mongolia and, until recently, extinct in the wild. Western Plains Zoo has had remarkable success in breeding these exceedingly rare animals, sending horses to Mongolia to re-establish the species in its native habitat. Jenkinson has been invited on a fellowship program monitoring the pioneering herd. "It's a dream come true, really," he says, as excited as a child in a lolly shop. "These horses are unique. To see them on their home turf will be very instructive. I can bring back what I learn and hopefully we'll be able to continue breeding these amazing animals. They're real survivors." He adds: "Don't miss seeing our newest addition, a three-week-old foal." I make a note for the next day's itinerary.
With Jenkinson we visit Happy the hippo, a cantankerous male whose name contradicts his behaviour. "If I was to get into his enclosure, he'd go at me in a minute," Jenkinson says. Hippos are extremely territorial, short-tempered and not to be messed with. "But he's a fascinating animal, isn't he?" Jenkinson suggests. I agree – Happy is an impressive grumpy giant.
At last we meet the lions. The male, in the prime of his life, stretches up for a titbit of meat Jenkinson extends from the end of a stick. He is easily four metres long, impressive to the point of cliche, a true king of beasts. A female licks the container that held the meat, tongue rasping as she reaches the last drops of blood. Jenkinson is completely at ease with these huge cats. We stand there in awe. It's a moonless night, the zoo has been closed for hours – it's just us and the lions.
At dawn we're joined by our morning guide, John Brett. "I used to drive tour buses showing people around Australia," he says. "Now I work here and this is better." His favourites are the Sumatran tigers. "I helped raise the two adolescents you saw yesterday. They mean a lot to me. Did you see the little horses yet?" he asks, referring to the Przewalski horses, or as he playfully calls them, "Todd's mini-horses". The good-humoured joking and camaraderie among the guides is a bonus.
"Let's go feed the giraffes – they'll be expecting us by now." Brett carries over a bucket of carrots, more than Bugs Bunny would eat in a week. A towering male extends his tongue to pluck a carrot from my fingers. "They have the largest hearts of any land animal," he tells us. "It has to pump blood up to their heads. As you can see, they have the longest tongues as well."
Next up are the cheetahs. Two youngsters react instantly when one of the children in our group runs quickly to his parents. The cheetahs' instinctive movements, crouching and readying for a chase, are fascinating. "Kids, please don't run, or any of you adults, either. The cheetahs want to chase anything that runs," Brett explains. We stand still and are rewarded with direct eye contact.
Finally, we visit the Asian elephants and the bongos, another rare animal Western Plains Zoo is working to save. "It's a pity that visitors just drive by the bongos and don't stop to see them," Brett says. He's right. They're strikingly beautiful large antelopes from central Africa. White and brown-striped coats, long spiralled horns and great brown eyes combine in an animal of surprising delicacy. A bongo takes bits of bread from my hand as gently as a breeze lifts an autumn leaf.
After our final tour I cycle around the zoo, catching up with animals I've missed: the short-clawed otters, the tapirs, dingoes, onagers and the Przewalski foal. I've had a marvellous time with my guides. Their ability to speak to animals is enviable. If I could have found the pushmi-pullyu, my visit would have been perfect. Alas, the Dr Dolittles wouldn't tell me where it was.
Tom Neal Tacker travelled courtesy of Western Plains Zoo.
Dubbo is about five hours' drive from Sydney. Rex Airlines flies there daily from Sydney. The Western Plains Zoo is located a few kilometres outside town.
Zoofari Experience packages at the Western Plains Zoo are available year-round from $289 a person a night, including accommodation, three guided tours, all meals, private parking and use of the zoo's bicycles. Children under three, $59 a night; children four to 15, $159 a night. Phone 6881 1488 or see zoofari.com.au.