Hairy situations

Kate Cox and family stare down a lion, cuddle snakes and get licked by giraffes.

We are trying to feed Numbi some chicken necks but she just won't play ball. She's staying put, 100 metres away under the shade of a big Eucalyptus tree, nonchalantly looking at us and our tasty treats through hooded lids.

After 10 minutes, she finally ambles over - and there's nothing lazy about her next move. The 225-kilogram lion jumps up onto the teeny-tiny iron fence separating us and gulps down the necks we dangle through a small crack.

The food is all gone in a flash - we feel her whiskers, smell her breath, look into her eyes ... and are kings for a day.

It's all part of the Animal Encounters program at Mogo Zoo, where guests are able to roam free and meet, hold and feed an exotic animal (or a whole smorgasbord of species, if you choose to be a Keeper For a Day).

Ten minutes later I find a missed worm in my hair.

Mogo Zoo is a 22-year-old zoo showcasing, caring for and breeding exotic and endangered species.

Although the zoo doesn't have quite the fame of Sydney's Taronga Zoo or the Irwins' Australia Zoo, those who go must love it: it won The Sun-Herald's Reader's Choice gong at the most recent NSW Tourism awards, hosted by Destination NSW. (It also took home the overall silver award for best tourist attraction.)

It's not hard to see why. The day we spend there feels like minutes. We not only feed Numbi - an unforgettable highlight - we meet and greet dozens more animal friends.

We're staying at the nearby BIG4 Batemans Bay Beach Resort - not quite a resort, but pretty fabulous cabins on the water - which, to our collective joy, has a massive jumping pillow, playground and pool on site. The whole area seems to be built for families - a stone's throw from our accommodation are go-karting, mini-golf and water slides.


Sally Padey started Mogo Zoo with "a dream", she says, and $4000, with her now former husband, Bill, and toddler, Casey.

Today, there are more than 200 animals across the 65 hectares, but the first thing you notice about the zoo is its tranquillity: there are gardens, silence and a general feeling of peace. And this is despite the fact we're laughing at overexcited monkeys from the start.

Arrive, pay (adults $28, kids $15, family $80) and walk out of the entrance turnstiles ... and slap bang into the silvery gibbons exhibition. Chinta, who has just turned two, goes straight for our hat and glasses. Only one other zoo - Perth - has successfully bred gibbons, we hear. And only one zoo - Australia Zoo - has a bigger exotic animal collection.

A little further on are pygmy marmosets smaller than the size of our hands - they weigh less than 20 grams as babies.

Not as cuddly is the snake collection, which includes a massive red-tailed boa and an even bigger (nearly four-metre) python. Dingoes stroll around behind a fence - they are from the private collection of two of the vets and can be taken for a walk.

You can really tell the animals are loved and there's a soapie-esque story behind all of them, it seems. The cute - and critically endangered - cotton-top tamarins have had an interesting few years. Mum monkey tried to kill dad monkey because she was attracted to the more fit and nubile son (yes, that would be her son), and a series of decoy tactics, including an aluminum crocodile, didn't deter her wandering eye. Finally the zookeepers took the handsome son monkey out of the equation and mum and dad are mating again.

Holly the chimpanzee comes to say hello. She spent the first three years of her life as someone's pet, in nappies, being paraded around at parties - that kind of odd stuff - so she's a bit high maintenance, it seems, insisting on watching DVDs and reading magazines.

Our young sons love Holly but they are more excited about the pony rides, which have recently started, alongside a new cafe and the giraffe feeding.

"He licked me again, mum," they sing out from way under the giraffe's huge tongue.

Kinwah, the tiger, our boys are not so sure about. Thelma the tiger spends up to 18 hours a day sleeping but it's the younger Kinwah we feed out the back.

Kinwah was born with a gammy hip - most zoos would not keep an animal in this case, as guests would worry what had happened - so instead of being on display, he is kept for "meet and greets".

It's terrifying! Especially as he loves little kids ("they're bite-sized", says our general manager guide, John Appleby) and although we have left them behind the gate, he can still smell, hear and sense them and it makes him pace, growl and generally freak out. As do we. But we eventually get the beef pieces down the tiger's mouth, through little holes in the mesh. Yikes.

The very cute meerkats are a little easier to feed, climbing all over us as we dole out their juicy worms (obviously their favourite) and dry feed (not so much). But it seems this feeding experience is almost as adventurous: 10 minutes later I find a missed worm in my hair.

The guest feeder before us was a 93-year-old woman in a wheelchair; she had received the feeding adventure as a present from her kids, and loved it.

"She couldn't stop laughing," says the zookeeper, who used to be a cabinetmaker but has never looked back since she changed careers. Past the deer (which we can also feed, as a family this time), the zoo opens up into a savannah-style set-up and we go cruising on a boat to feed the cheeky lemurs and monkeys, which are all spread over four little islands. It's so unexpected and a highlight of the day.

As we sit at the cafe eating fish and chips, we realise that's what it's all about: trying out-of-the-ordinary experiences, without feeling as if you're exploiting the animals.

To vote for the Sun-Herald reader's choice award in the 2012 NSW Tourism Awards go to

Trip notes

Getting there

Mogo Zoo, 222 Tomakin Road, Mogo, NSW (next to Mogo State Forest). It takes about four hours from Sydney, driving south along the Princes Highway. Follow the highway 10 kilometres south from Batemans Bay (about 10 minutes) until you reach Mogo and follow the signs, turning left into Tomakin Road.

BIG4 Batemans Bay Beach Resort, 51 Beach Road, Batehaven, NSW.

Playing there

Zoo entry is adults (16+) $28, children (three to 15) $15. Children under three are admitted free.

Staying there

BIG4 accommodation options range from unpowered sites starting at $26 to three-bedroom deluxe cabins starting at $235, Sunday-Thursday, and $290, Friday-Saturday. All rates are based on two people in low season.