Anne Hailes: How about paying Belfast Zoological Gardens a visit over Christmas?

Raymond Robinson feeding the penguins at Belfast Zoo

I HAVEN'T started my Christmas shopping, it's hard to get motivated. There'll be a few cards going to friends abroad but I now phone my greetings and catch up on the news; it allows a donation to go to the Children's Hospice rather than the Post Office for over-priced stamps. Remember when there was a special cheap Christmas stamp as long as envelopes weren't stuck closed? I always wondered, why unstuck?

So, presents! It's a bit of a cop-out giving money to children although I think they rather like it but it's not the same as receiving a gift wrapped in bright paper – or plain paper this year in aid of recycling.

All the expensive electronic games and gadgets are obvious but mean you won't get a word out of the kids for days. So how about paying Belfast Zoological Gardens a visit?

The ‘Zoovenier' shop boasts gorgeous soft toys representing every animal you can think of, T-shirts featuring meerkats, animal-decorated tote bags in small, medium and large with a sturdy strap, vinyl stickers to decorate items like laptops, mugs and beautiful lightweight aluminium wall pictures, many of the images by local artists and photographers.

Something like 300,000 men women and children visit the zoo every year, where they see 1,200 animals and 140 species, the exotic and the local, all built up from small beginnings 85 years ago when the trams travelled up the Antrim Road and passengers paid a penny to view the big houses and manicured estates of the rich.

Then the Corporation built their own pleasure garden at the end of the line, and Belleview, ‘beautiful view over the city' was born. Twenty years later they opened a small zoo and so it has progressed from there.

Not everyone approves; some are vehemently against keeping animals in compounds but all these creatures have been born in captivity, they breed in the best conditions, they go to other zoos in a worldwide organisation where standards are guaranteed and no money changes hands.

Last year a giraffe travelled to Holland in a very tall trailer with professional handlers and a gibbon left for Australia just a couple of weeks ago after years of paperwork. During the summer twin red panda cubs were born, an endangered species and proof of a successful international breeding programme.

As zoo curator Raymond Robinson told me, all animals are given five-star attention, heated floors where appropriate, best food and healthcare, a vet on call. I learned some interesting facts, including about chimps on the pill, pregnancy tests using human testing kits and that female animals experience a monthly cycle and the menopause.

Don't think Mariella Frostrup mentioned this in her programme on menopause last week!

Most popular are the penguins

Fifty little personalities and nine new chicks this year. Several thousand honey bees have a short but busy life and the breeding programme for red squirrels has been most successful, with pairs being released, under constant supervision, to the Silent Valley, Montalto Estate and Glenarm.

With that in mind, the ultimate present of all, I reckon, is becoming a junior keeper for a day. Geared for eight-to-17-year olds. From examining the health of rabbits to washing an elephant's feet, always two keepers present to entice the animal with apples and carrots to come to put a foot through a little door in the caged area – safety is of paramount importance.

There's work to be done on the farm, feeding the chimps and giving the reptiles lunch. From 10.30am to 3pm and lots of photos taken to bring home. A lifetime of memories. It's not cheap at £125 but what a gift.

There's an adult experience as well – £195, 9am until 3.30pm. All questions answered including one from a young man who asked if a wallaby was a baby donkey.

There's a wonderful learning and loving experience attached to the zoo. Do staff get upset when an animal dies? “We have to be realistic,” said Raymond. “Sometimes we do lose an animal and you'll notice that the keeper will take some time alone just to come to terms.”

Something for everyone

Choose from a number of adventures you can buy into – one romantic even arranged to go along to the giraffe house with his girlfriend, got down on one knee and proposed to her! “Thank goodness she said yes.”

As a very young child I remember riding on the back of a huge elephant at Dublin's Phoenix Park Zoo, as it was then, and I've a photo somewhere of me cuddling two baby lion cubs. Not permitted today but the memory lingers on.

Unless you're lucky, or content with David Attenborough, a well-run zoo might be your only chance to see an elephant up close and personal, or a giraffe or a huge silverback and to marvel at the size and strength. Even stroking a rabbit is special.

For more information, call the Zoo Crew on 028 9077 6277 (extension 203) or if you want to get involved coming up to Christmas, perhaps adopt an animal, gifts and mail order information are all available at


CAN you believe it, a minute ago it was June and we were basking in the heat of summer, now a few snowflakes and we're panicking.

When I travelled inside the Arctic Circle (as you do!) we got round to talking snow with the locals. I asked about the tall sticks along the path; each had a red line at the top, far above my head.

“An indication of the depth of the snow.”

I marvelled and said that we freaked out with a few inches. The reply? “We know. We laugh at you.” Apparently they dig deep gullies along the roadside, then the snow ploughs push the snow into the gullies to drain away. There's an idea for the Glenshane Pass.

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