It's pats and snacks, pet

A behind-the-scenes zoo tour brings out the best and worst of animal behaviours, writes Bruce Holmes.

"DON'T lean on the metal fence," our guide, Shelley, warns before we visit the big cats. "We wouldn't want you to lose a hand." When Sheba, the snow leopard, strolls over, we duly remember she's not a domestic cat, though she looks up ever so sweetly as she sees one of us taking meat from the bucket and lifting the tongs towards her. Gulp. All gone.

We get up close because the National Zoo in Canberra offers a ZooVenture Tour. Limited to 12 people at a time, it's a two-hour walk with the keeper in the late afternoon, after the animals have woken from their siesta. Which animals you see depends on who's in the mood for visitors.

A 10-year-old Sumatran tiger called Berani paces back and forth, on his best behaviour as each of our group offers him a morsel of beef. Then Shelley picks up the bucket to move off. A tantrum would best describe Berani's changed demeanour once he realises there'll be no more. He growls and shakes the mesh fencing.

Next, we head into a bunker known as the party room, its mesh windows facing an enclosure with a lake and rock walls. Cheyenne is a 13-year-old cougar and if he ever had the persuasive table manners of Sheba or Berani, he lost them long ago. Snarling, he grabs the cage-like mesh and rattles it demandingly. We oblige, tongs at arm's length.

It's time for carrots as we meet Humbekhali and Ketanga, giraffes who are just as pleased to receive guests as the cats were but with gentler manners.

Dingoes are just around the corner and we're keen for a pat, so the guide brings Jumbany, the younger one, out of the enclosure. We then visit two-year-old white lions, Mishka and Jake. Male and female get along well but when chunks of meat cause pushing, shoving and growling, our guide changes tack. We feed pieces of beef to them simultaneously; Shelley nominating one lion for her morsel and one of us feeding the other. It's ready, set, go!

Further on, we visit the sun bear's hideout. I put a honey and porridge-like mix on the palm of one hand, which I then hold vertical, about 10 centimetres from the cage, watched closely by our minder, who ensures fingers don't droop forward. The bear's long tongue comes through the gap and licks the tasty concoction until my palm is clean.

Our last stop is with a boa constrictor, where we realise not everyone wants a snake wrapped around their shoulders. "Don't they strangle their prey?" someone asks. But our minder reassures us that she won't allow the life to be crushed out of us on her watch.

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The writer was a guest of Australian Capital Tourism.

Trip notes

The National Zoo and Aquarium, Lady Denman Drive, Yarralumla, (02) 6287 8400, nationalzoo.com.au. A two-hour tour costs $95 weekdays, $125 weekends and public holidays, including zoo entry. Minimum age for the tour is 10.

Run with the pack

Feed a rhino in Dubbo on a one-hour Wild Africa Encounter. The Western Plains Zoo has the largest collection of endangered black rhinos outside Africa. Meet a four-year-old cheetah, then watch as a herd of white rhinos jostles for hay bales. Costs $74/$41. (02) 6881 1400, taronga.org.au/western-plains-zoo.aspx.

A 90-minute night safari, an overnight stay in tents overlooking the harbour and a buffet dinner are all part of the Roar and Snore package at Taronga Zoo. In the morning, hide all sorts of food for Bethyl the Kodiak bear to find for breakfast. Priced from $234-$260/$166.50-$185. Book well ahead. (02) 9969 2777, taronga.org.au.

A 90-minute Open Vehicle Adventure takes visitors across the savannah at Werribee's Open Range Zoo, where your vehicle will be surrounded by rhinos, giraffes, zebras and antelopes. Costs $80/$65; the minimum age is eight years. (03) 9731 9600, zoo.org.au/WerribeeOpenRangeZoo.

Help the keeper provide daily treats and enrichment activities for orang-utans, siamangs and gibbons as part of Adelaide's lively, one-hour Ape It Up tour. Costs $120, minimum age is 12 years. Giant panda viewing is included in the price but must be -booked beforehand. (08) 8267 3255, adelaidezoo.com.au.

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