Bruce Elder discovers zoos where man and beast can sidle up beyond the cage.
Have you ever wanted to get close to a wild animal capable of devouring you as an entree? Proximity has become one of the great attractions of the modern zoo. Visitors can pat a serval at Mogo Zoo on the NSW south coast, cuddle a meerkat at Auckland Zoo and, at Monarto Zoo, 45 minutes' drive from downtown Adelaide, they can stroke an imperiously aloof cheetah and sidle so close to the zoo's two lions and four lionesses that they can smell their last meal.
Such experiences do not come cheap. At Monarto Zoo, entry to the cheetah enclosure is $170 (including zoo admission), which allows you to pat the three five-year-old boys: Askari, Skukuza, Tsotsie. You'll pay $125 to have a thin but sturdy cage between you and the zoo's four lionesses - Tiombe, Kiamba, Kibira and Zalika - and its two lions, Leroy and Inkosi, as you throw meat to them and they growl and show their fangs.
These are not places to see animals in small, heavily barred prisons ''turning there/in tiniest of circles'', as the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote in his poem The Panther.
Monarto Zoo, which opened in 1983, spans 1000 hectares and is recognised as the world's largest zoo. This is particularly evident to visitors who, having left their cars in the parking area at the zoo's information centre, can choose a number of walking trails (the animals are on the far sides of the fences) or regular small buses. These buses criss-cross the zoo and allow passengers to board and alight as they wish. Each bus stop is located at a large viewing platform where visitors have excellent, elevated vantage points to watch rhinos, lions, cheetahs, hunting dogs, hyenas, antelopes, zebras and Australia's largest giraffe herd wandering ''freely'' in enclosures that are several hectares in size. There is a special bus that takes visitors into the enclosures where the lions and wild dogs roam.
The zoo is located on the edge of mallee country, which means it has the dry, barren look of an African game park. It is the kind of place that really can't be experienced in less than four hours; to do it justice, the visitor should spend a day. If the weather is mild, it's a joy to wander through the mallee and reach a look-out to watch giraffes or white rhinos grazing, or chimps swinging from branches.
There's a series of daily talks by keepers, starting with a talk by the chimp keeper at 11.30am and followed by meerkat, carnivore, giraffe, cheetah and rhino keepers at 3.35pm. The emphasis is on the dangers faced by the animals - the zoo's credo is ''we exist to save animals from extinction'' - and there are opportunities to contribute by adopting an animal or becoming involved in the Royal Zoological Society of South Australia's Conservation Ark program.
But before you head off for this Australian safari experience, visit Monarto's older sister, Adelaide Zoo; both zoos are owned and run by a non-profit conservation charity, unlike all the other city zoos in Australia, which are run by their respective state governments.
Adelaide Zoo's star attractions are undoubtedly its two giant pandas.
They have been a huge commercial and promotional success for the zoo since their arrival in December 2008. ''It is known throughout the world that the arrival of pandas from China will increase attendance at a zoo by, on average, 70 per cent,'' says the zoo's chief executive officer, Dr Chris West.
The panda's five-star enclosure, just for two of them, cost a cool $8 million; it has extensive stands of bamboo and carefully recreated Chinese landscapes; can hold up to 500 people at one time; and has good sight lines allowing every visitor to see Wang Wang and Funi mooching around their five-star enclosure.
Ask West to explain the attraction of pandas and he will point to the cartoon appeal of their round faces and black eyes (though I think they look like furry goths off to listen to Nick Cave or read Anne Rice). A more plausible explanation, I suggest, is that the average giant panda looks rather like a large male teenager dressed in a giant panda suit, which means parents are happy to pay good money to see them caged.
Both pandas were born at the Wolong Giant Panda Research Centre in the Chinese province of Sichuan. They were traumatised during the 2008 earthquake, which seriously damaged the research centre and killed Wang Wang's mother, Mao Mao; and they are currently the only giant pandas in the southern hemisphere. The federal government will donate $1 million a year to panda conservation in China for the next 10 years for the privilege of having these animals become permanent residents at Adelaide Zoo.
NSW and Victoria have combinations of urban and rural zoos (Taronga Zoo in Sydney and Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo; Melbourne Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary in the Yarra Valley) but what makes South Australia's zoos unique is their combination of giant pandas and giant size.
Bruce Elder travelled courtesy of the South Australian Tourism Commission.
Monarto Zoo is 70 kilometres from Adelaide via the Princes Highway, on the main road to Murray Bridge. The main Adelaide Zoo is located on Plane Tree Drive at the edge of the city's botanic gardens.
Entry to Adelaide Zoo and Monarto each costs $28.50 adults, $16.50 children and $74 for families of two adults and two or three children. A joint ticket to both zoos is $42.50 adults, $24.50 children and $111 for families.
Both zoos are open daily 9.30am to 5pm. Monarto does not allow entry after 3pm and closes when the forecast temperature is 40 degrees or higher. Phone Monarto information centre on (08) 8534 4100 and Adelaide Zoo Information Centre on (08) 8267 3255; see www.zoossa.com.au.