Until this trip, my first and only visit to Chester Zoo had been back in 2000. I remember thoroughly enjoying myself then and that the place was large in scope and successful in execution. So I looked forward greatly to my next opportunity to visit and this was finally achieved last week. In general I was greatly impressed and had a great time and while there are some nit-picks coming, the experience was almost overwhelmingly positive.
Chester combines all the things that, for me, make a zoo great. There is a good diversity of species – both classics (lions, elephant, rhinos) and rarities, species big and small, covering the vertebrate spectrum and with a respectable number of invertebrates, the enclosures are big and more importantly well designed and well maintained, and the animals are generally in large numbers and uniformly well looked after and happy, and finally, the signs and educational content was good. In short, it should please pretty much everyone, from those looking for a typical family day-out to those who are after seeing new and unusual species, or school trips and the like.
Great things to see were for example the elephant and wild dog paddocks (colossal) the ape set-ups (very big, and very cleverly executed) and tropical house (a mixture of free flying birds and cages for bigger birds and various herptiles). I can’t remember the last time I saw oranges so active and so content and the chips acted as normally as I’ve ever seen. The aquarium was tiny but well stocked, and there was a dedicated butterfly house with quite a diversity in there.
The overwhelming positives were the ‘new’ and unusual species. As a veteran zoo-goer I can suffer from burn-out of Asian short-clawed otters, meerkats, Humboldt penguins and Siberian tigers. While these were not in short supply, there were lots of things less rarely seen in UK zoos like warthogs, cheetah, congo buffalo, caecelians and, yes, both tuataras and a Komodo dragon. But even for me there were several species I’d not seen before like sitatunga, giant otters, Montserrat frogs, Galapagos tortoise and rhinoceros hornbills. In short, it was hard not to be impressed and excited by the diversity of things on display.
Like many zoos that bear repeat visits, it also has some real gems. Small hidden-away enclosures or sections such that even traveling between major exhibits there will be an odd aviary or set-up with a few more birds, or local wildlife or similar so that even the walks are broken-up and there’s a chance to see something else interesting. Sure the jaguars might not be out, but there’s a tank of fish or snakes next to the main window to keep you occupied if you want to give it five minutes and hope for them to show.
The educational side was pretty good too with lots of signs. They were a bit mixed to be fair, as while there were identifiers for pretty much everything and the odd detailed signs (why to tapirs spray urine, how to zebras feed etc.) ‘basic’ info like the what the animal in question eats, where it’s from, how long they live etc. were in rather short supply. One great addition though was the regular mention of fossils and extinct relatives and in one case a few (dodgy, but well meant) sculpts of theropod and pterosaur bones to accompany these. It’s certainly very welcome to see Embolotherium and the woolly rhino mentioned in the context of the modern black and white rhinos.
As for the nit-picks one personal disappointment was the fact that the dik-diks were off show (something I’ve never seen) but that can hardly be helped. More annoying was that some of the signposts were a bit confusing and the routes between various places were not easy to follow. I had to backtrack quite often to get from point to point or cover three sides of a large building to get around it, in a zoo that size (it’s massive) it’s frustrating and tiring.
Overall though it was a great visit and for me ranks among the top zoos in the UK. Quite simply it ha a diversity of species and a level of care and enclosure set-up that all but guarantee a good visit. You’ll see lots of things, they will be active and interested and happy, you’ll learn things too. It’s hard to wish for much more than that in a zoo, though of course it’s rather harder to achieve than it sounds.