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I first heard about Dartmoor Zoological Park through the film "We Bought a Zoo". Whilst the Hollywood version of the film was very different from the true story (although still very good), it was the Book: We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Mee that made me want to visit Dartmoor Zoo. I have now read the book through a second time as I wanted to have it fresh in my mind when we visited. I visited the zoo as a normal paying customer, but I must confess that because of the book I had become a fan of the zoo long before I actually visited it.

Peacock at Dartmoor Zoo, Devon

Earlier this year we went on holiday to St Ives in Cornwall and arranged a hotel stopover at Plymouth on our way home so that we could visit the zoo. The zoo is built on a hill and there is a hill to climb from the car park to the main part of the zoo (disabled parking is available at the top of the hill). The hill isn't too bad and the good thing is after walking up to the main area of the zoo there isn't too much of a hill around the rest of the zoo (unlike some other zoos).

First impressions were that the zoo is a bit run down. It doesn't feel neglected though, as it feels as though there is a great team that care deeply about the zoo and the animals and the animals look well looked after and content. Due to it's age and financial constraints the zoo could do with some improvements in terms of the fences of the enclosures, which are maintained through repairing them where they could do with being replaced. This is not the first zoo I've been to that I've got that initial impression, as I thought the same about Dudley Zoo and Castle which has improved dramatically over the last few years since I've been visiting. Dartmoor Zoo is planning for a major investment which should give it an exciting future.

Otters at Dartmoor Zoo

The zoo does have some great things going for it. One of the great things about the zoo is the design of the enclosures which provide a cage free view of many of the animals. This is not the first zoo that I've seen that provides this kind of enclosure (eg. Beekse Bergen Safari Park), but it's the first time I've seen it to this extent in such a small zoo.

The enclosures included a variety of different features that the animals could use to play with or to hide behind. Whilst this sometimes made the animals a bit harder to see it's clear that the zoo prioritises the welfare of the animals which is obviously important. From the book it is clear to see that education and animal conservation is major part of the ethos of the zoo and is the driving force behind the future plans for the zoo.

Tiger at Dartmoor Zoological Park

The zoo is a good size to visit in a single day. We managed to see around all the animals and a few of the talks and feeds. One of the things we watched was the feeding of the Lion, which happened to be on World Lion day. The keepers hid food around the enclosure so that the Lion had to hunt for the food.

Lion at Dartmoor Zoological Park

The thing that really made the visit special was the volunteers. There were several volunteers around the site who were knowledgeable and friendly. One particular volunteer spent quite a while with us when we were waiting for the tigers to be released into their enclosure. She also led the close encounters experience where we got to handle a giant snail and a snake. I went over and thanked her as we left, as between her and the other volunteers greatly improved the visit.

Volunteers at the close encounter at Dartmoor Zoo

One part of the zoo that did look good and well invested is the Jaguar Restaurant, which includes the gift shop. It's a very modern looking restaurant. We ate lunch in the Jaguar restaurant; the food was quite expensive, but was good quality. The weather wasn't particularly good when were there so the zoo was quieter than it may have been, but the restaurant was very busy.

We thoroughly enjoyed our day out at Dartmoor Zoological Park. I will be looking an opportunity to visit again in future and hopefully watch the zoo improve towards a world class zoo promoting education and conservation.

More photos of our visit are available on the Days out diary Facebook photo gallery