Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Top Ten Tips for the Perfect Wedding

Ben & Claudia tied the knot in 2013

2014 has proven to be a popular year for weddings at Dartmoor Zoo with over twenty couples saying, "I do" at the zoo in the company of over 2000 guests.


We started the year with Sarah and David who tied the knot on a surprisingly sunny March afternoon. They had a selection of their closest friends celebrate their special day using the Manor House as the backdrop for their ceremony and the restaurant for their reception.

In August with much better weather, Matt and Gail had their ceremony outside the Manor House allowing their guests to top up their tan in the open air. The celebration continued in the marquee situated in the heart of the zoo amongst the tigers, cheetah and monkeys. 

Our two remaining weddings are in October, but there’s no time to rest with the calendar for 2015 already looking much busier! What have we learnt from the experiences of 2014?

Prepare, prepare, prepare. Many of our wedding couples across the years have thought planning a wedding was easy, until it came to their special day. Planning a wedding is like a military operation, everything must be planned to perfection, and when I say everything, I mean everything. Here are our top tips when planning your wedding:

  1. Know the date: It sounds obvious but be sure when contacting a venue that you know the exact date you are looking for. Good venues fill up very fast and their prices depend specifically on the day and date you are looking for. The venue won't be able to give you an accurate idea of costs without a date.
    • TIP: Weekdays outside of school holidays tend to be cheaper.
  2.        Know your numbers: Make sure you have written your guest list well in advance of your big day. The worst thing in the world is not knowing how many guests to expect weeks before the wedding and again, this is essential if you want an accurate idea of costs from the venue. 
    •  TIP: Give guests a strict deadline; normally venues will say 6 weeks prior to the wedding so tell your guests you need to know eight weeks before your big day. At the end of the day you are paying for it, so don’t be afraid to push!
  3. Choose the food you want: Don’t be tempted to think too much about other people's preferences when it comes to the food. It is your wedding, pick what you want. Think about this carefully when looking at venues too, sometimes they can be quite pushy and insist on you having their menu. If you aren’t happy with it, don’t have it. That venue obviously isn’t the place for you. Like most venues, we offer a selection of menus, but we don't insist that our couples stick to them. Many choose BBQ’s, hog roasts or if they do choose a 3 course meal they choose what they want; sometimes a Mexican theme, and sometimes a roast dinner. It is your special day, remember that. 
  4. Claire & Paul tied the knot in 2014
    •  TIP: keeps costs and complications to a minimum, only offer your guests one option for their main meal.
  5.  Chair covers: Chair covers can make a huge difference to your special day. However don't order them online and dress them yourselves. You might think you are saving money but do you really want to be dressing your chairs minutes before the most important event of your life? Let the supplier or venue take care of that - it's their job.
    •   TIP: Shop around with companies, sometimes they throw in table runners or sweet carts which can really improve the ambiance of your wedding. Your venue should have good contacts and will normally offer a reduced rate.
  6. Seating Plan: It doesn’t matter how low key or casual your wedding is going to be, always have a seating plan. This makes it easier for your guests and for the venue.
    • TIP: Ask the venue if they have an easel or something similar. This will save you a few quid and will make the room look much more sophisticated.
  7. Photographers: Do you want to remember your special day for the rest of your life? Do you want to reminisce with your children and grandchildren in years to come? Then book well in advance.  Good photographers book up very quickly. Make sure you shop around for the right kind of photographer, see samples of their work, the quality of their prints etc. Make sure you like their style and book them quickly. 
    • TIP: Ask the venue if they have an in-house photographer. Chances are they do and this photographer knows the venue inside out. They know where the best photo opportunities are and chances are they are given more freedom than someone the staff don’t know, meaning your photos will be that little bit more special.
  8. Extras: Do you want your wedding guests to be bored? Your day will be full - make sure its the same for your guests. Little extras like candy carts, photo booths and even a bouncy castle, really make your special day that much more special for your guests.
  9. Sadie and Chris met Vlad on their special day in 2014
    •   TIP: As above shop around and use your contacts. There must be a friend out there who knows a sweet shop. Use them, you’ll save bundles. But remember, make sure you let the venue know well in advance, they will need the boring, necessary stuff like Public Liability Insurance.
  10. Ceremony: Do not overlook your ceremony. Really, the amount of times we see couples just rock up to their wedding ceremony clueless is staggering. Trust us; you do not know what you are doing.
    • TIP. Arrange a ceremony rehearsal a few days before the wedding or if this isn’t possible, practice at home. Make all your mistakes before the big day!
  11. Signs: Do all your guests live locally? Signs might not seem significant but if half your guests don’t arrive because they are lost, it will soon become a big thing.
    • TIP: Ask the venue in advance if they have signs to use around their venue. If not jump on EBay, ‘Wedding ceremony this way’ signs can be as cheap as £3.
  12. Itinerary: Put together a comprehensive itinerary, one for the guests and one for the venue. The guest’s itinerary can be a bit general such as “Gather in marquee for food”. Whereas the venue's one needs to be much more comprehensive e.g. “Guests will arrive in the marquee for food. Ensure staff are ready to welcome guests and assist with the seating plan.” Include every tiny detail, your venue host will thank you for it.
    • TIP. Make sure you plan your itinerary with your guests in mind – leaving a big gap between the ceremony and the food is not a good idea, throw in a bouncy castle or a photo booth here, and trust us it works!
Finally, help the venue as much as possible: At the end of the day the venue are the people making sure your wedding goes exactly as you planned. If you don’t tell them what you’ve planned, how are they going to ensure it happens? 

So follow the above steps to ensure your wedding runs smoothly and that all your guests leave with memories as cherished as yours.

For more handy tips follow @DZPEvents on twitter.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Family planning for big cats

Senior Keeper, Kate Stone with Josie
A large part of being a zoo keeper is getting to know your animals. Being familiar with their individual personalities and their day-to-day behaviour is an essential part of good animal care since changes in their behaviour could indicate injury or illness. Often their behaviour can change according to their breeding cycle.

With some animals this change can be quite radical and potentially dangerous; a normally passive, cooperative reindeer can change into a real threat to safety overnight.

When it comes to the big cats they are never considered safe. Management is always a two-person job and we have strict safety protocols in place for even the most routine tasks.

As reported here by Senior Keeper, Hannah, we recently lost the pride of our collection, Solomon, the male African Lion. He shared his enclosure with his daughter, Josie so it was extremely important that we manage their ability to breed as well as the behavioural consequences of the breeding cycle.

We always knew when changes in the lions’ behaviour were related to breeding. They would both lose interest in food and for Solomon breeding was the one thing on his mind – he wouldn’t leave Josie alone! In the wild there is only one dominant male, he is top-dog, and the rewards for being the fittest and the strongest are the rights to breed with the females. Solomon was always top-dog.

During the breeding cycle Solomon would follow her around and stand over her whenever she lay down just in case another male wanted to mate with her, despite the fact that they were the only lions in the enclosure! In all his time here the nearest male lion was in Paignton Zoo but that didn’t stop Solomon performing in every respect like a dominant male with a territory and a female to protect.

For Josie the behaviour was a little different. First, she’d begin to flirt, which Solomon didn't seem to mind at all. However, after a while the honeymoon period would come to an end and she’d grow rapidly tired of Solomon’s attention. With Solomon being her constant shadow, she would become grumpy and irritable. This is very species-typical behaviour and in the wild it would usually lead to the pair losing all interest in food and instead spending several days together mating.

Since they were related, Josie was given a contraceptive implant which would have to be replaced every three years. The most recent replacement was on 30th November 2012.

The implant is injected just under the skin, a procedure that takes about 30 seconds. However, managing big cats is never that simple. Before we can get to that point there’s a whole lot of work to be done.

In order to get close enough to Josie to perform the procedure safely she must first be sedated inside her pen in the lion house. Once she was inside, Mike our Head Keeper, who is part of the firearms team, used the dart gun to deliver the anaesthetic. Putting animals under anaesthetic, especially big cats, is quite a risky business for both keepers and cat. When dealing with an animal that has three inch long sharp retractable claws and mighty jaws containing canine teeth four inches long, which they can open to 12 inches wide, safety is all important.

However, it’s also risky for the cat. She would have to be sedated enough to ensure she wouldn't wake up during the procedure, but not given so much that she might not wake up when given the reversal drugs. An average lioness can weigh between 110kg-140kg, animals Josie's size and bigger are not really designed to be knocked out, their body weight can be quite a strain when under the influence of anaesthetic.

To keep the procedure as stress free as possible, only Mike and our vet went into the house when they were ready to dart her. Everyone else waited outside being very quiet.

Once she was darted it took around 10 to 15 minutes for the drugs to take effect. To be sure that she was fully asleep the vet checked her for reactions. It was lucky that she had decided to lie down against the mesh of her pen so the vet could touch her easily whilst he stood safely in the keeper corridor of the house.

Once the vet was happy that she was fully sedated he could enter the pen to complete the procedure by injecting the contraceptive implant under the skin between her shoulder-blades.

After only a few minutes of full sedation she was given the reversal drugs by manual injection and within 20 minutes she was up and about in the house no doubt wondering what had happened.

After this kind of procedure it was crucial that Josie remained under observation to ensure that she recovered properly. One keeper stayed in the house making sure she was behaving as expected. Once everyone was happy that she was in good health she was let back out into the enclosure with Solomon.

For keepers participating in veterinary procedures like this is a huge perk of the job, and it's not every day you get to see something like this.

Kate Stone
Senior Keeper



Monday, 18 February 2013

DZP Declares the Start of Summer

Baby meerkats enjoying the sunshine
Encouraged by the recent improvement in the weather, Plymouth attraction, Dartmoor Zoo has declared the start of summer and moved into its summer timetable six weeks ahead of schedule.

Based on the edge of Dartmoor, the zoo has borne the brunt of recent severe weather conditions including torrential rain, snow and high winds.

Operations manager, George Hyde has been counting the cost. “The weather is the one thing over which we have no control,” he says. “We’ve pulled out all the stops with special offers, free kids ticket promotions and such, but despite enthusiastic up-take, if the weather is against us then people just don’t come.”

Turning off the visitors is not the only negative impact the weather has on the zoo. In the 33 acres of natural woodland, severe weather can be very dangerous. “Sometimes there really is no option but to close the park to visitors,” explains George. “High winds after weeks of relentless heavy rain dramatically increase the possibility of trees coming down. When it comes to public safety that’s a risk we simply cannot take.”

A close call at Tiger Rock
There was a particularly close call recently when heavy snow brought down a large branch from a pine tree overhanging the tiger enclosure, causing significant damage to the perimeter of the enclosure. “On the face of it, this was a typical nightmare scenario,” says George. “A large branch breaching the perimeter of a carnivore enclosure is at the top of the list of things you don’t want to happen around here. However, because this is a real possibility we have strict procedures in place. At the time the branch came down we’d already taken precautionary measures by ensuring all three tigers were safe and secure inside their house.”

Regular tree surveys help the staff at the zoo identify potential problems and intervene before they become an issue. But with thousands of branches on hundreds of trees in both public and non-public areas it’s an almost impossible task. Recently a large branch from a beach tree came down in high winds close to the coati enclosure. It caused no serious damage but it took all available staff to remove over one ton of wood from the pathway.

“When you think of what might have happened in events like this, it’s more than a little scary,” explains George. “However, it happened after hours. If it had happened during opening hours our procedures would have already ensured that the park would have been closed to visitors.”

The expense of repairing damage and the cost of necessary closures has been keenly felt by everyone at the zoo, so the positive turn in the weather has been very welcome.

“We’ve decided that summer is already upon us and moved to summer opening hours six weeks early,” says George. “I admit that declaring the start of summer is mostly blind optimism, but with a winter like the one we’ve just had we could all use a little optimism; blind or otherwise.”

However, the radical change in schedule is not entirely whimsical. There are real practicalities in play says George, “The weather forecast for Half Term is quite favourable, the days are longer and visitor numbers are fairly good. Most importantly we need to make the best of the good weather to compensate for the unavoidable cost of the bad.”

In addition to extending the opening hours to 6pm daily the zoo is hoping to attract visitors with a number of special offers, the most recent of which is the, “BoomerangTicket” which entitles full paying visitors to a second visit free of charge. This and other offers can be found on the zoo’s web site and Facebook page.


Wednesday, 13 February 2013

An Evening with...

A great evening had by all
On Friday the 8th February we hosted the first of our “Evening with...” events. They’re an opportunity for our visitors to hear all about the zoo’s activities from the senior staff whilst enjoying good food and great music.

This event was, “An Evening with Benjamin Mee” and focused on the recent history of the zoo looking at what projects we have underway and what to expect in 2013.

Head Keeper, Mike Downman (standing in for Curator, Colin Northcott currently recovering from a recent operation) got things underway with an entertaining rundown on all the animal comings and goings. He dealt admirably with the difficult task of covering the recent loss of two of our most iconic residents, Ben the European Brown Bear and more recently, Solomon the African Lion.

These major characters have played an important role in the life of the zoo and their loss is keenly felt by staff and visitors alike.

Mike also had plenty of good news such as the arrival of lots of baby Lechwe Antelope, African Pygmy Goats and more recently, meerkats as well as the touching story of bay tapir, Luta. He also brought everyone up-to-date with recent important additions to the collection including the introduction of Iberian Wolves and Grants Zebra.

Entertainment for the evening was provided by Frankie Canale-Dow, a local singer who is gathering notoriety whilst she volunteers and studies for her Extended Diploma in Animal Management here at DZP with Bicton College. She was accompanied by Gary Platts on guitar with whom she’d been working diligently over the previous weeks to learn and rehearse many new songs. They both put on a great performance roundly appreciated by the audience.

Between the main course and dessert, Conservation and Research Officer, Adam Cook gave a presentation illustrating the import contribution we make in these fields. With the help of a volunteer from the audience he was able to bring more than a little humour to what might otherwise be considered a rather dry subject. Conservation and research activities are crucial activities in the day-to-day life of a modern zoo which often go unnoticed by the visitor so we were thrilled to see just how the enthusiastic reception from the audience highlighted the value of this kind of event.

Benjamin signing copies of We Bought a Zoo
After dessert it was time for Zoo Director, Benjamin Mee to give his presentation. He took the opportunity to take the audience back to the earliest days of the Dartmoor Zoo story from the very real struggle it was to actually buy the zoo, through the drama of the jaguar escape, meeting Matt Damon and Scarlet Johansson, right up to the most recent events and future plans.

In a lively Q&A, members of the audience had the chance to quiz Ben on his talk and highlight areas of personal interest.

To close proceedings Ben kindly signed copies of, “We Bought a Zoo” and posed for photographs with the guests.

All in all, the event was a resounding success with many of the guests keen to know when the next event would be.

On 12th April we’ll be hosting, “The History of Man’s Fascination with Animal Captivity.”

UP-DATE: You can find full up-to-date details on the event here.

Presentation Team Supervisor, Emma Baker will be giving a fascinating talk illustrating the history of animal captivity from the earliest Egyptian menageries designed to enhance the status of the pharaohs through the golden age of imperial collections to the modern day zoological collection and its focus on conservation, education and research. It’s a unique opportunity to see how and why attitudes have changed over the years whilst the fascination remains the same.

Curator, Colin Northcott will then draw on his 25 years of personal experience to give a modern history of life as a zoo keeper including some truly hair-raising stories of all-too-close-encounters with large captive carnivores.

Once again, places are limited so for further information and booking, contact Naomi today.

If all that is still not enough to tempt you to join us, here are some very kind comments from the audience for, “An Evening with Benjamin Mee.”
“A big thank you to Benjamin and the rest of the staff for an absolutely fantastic evening on Friday night! The atmosphere was fantastic and I loved every second of it.” - Dawn Loxham
“Just wanted to thank everyone at Dartmoor Zoo for a lovely night last night. We got our books signed and really enjoyed the presentations from all the speakers. Meeting Benjamin was an absolute delight. He's a real inspiration and a very genuine person with amazing qualities and a fighting spirit. Thanks again for giving us the opportunity to be a part of the evening, we hope to come back and visit you all again soon.” - Emma Matthews
“What a great evening last night. So interesting and good food. Glad to see it was so well supported. To top it off, as we got into our car outside the main house, a real rumble from one of the big cats. Thanks guys.” - Amanda Mabley
“Great Evening. Thanks all, lovely to meet you, especially Ben .” - Godoartist
“Great evening at the zoo this evening. Thanks for organising...let's do it again sometime!” - Lindsay Brown
“Had a great evening @DartmoorZoo last night with #BenjaminMee. He gives me great strength and hope and is a true inspiration to me. “ - @EmmasPlanet
“Last night was brilliant! Thank you for such an enjoyable evening.” - @APieceofCake7
“Just home from a great inspirational evening @DartmoorZoo. Interesting talks from the keepers, good food and a chat with the man himself!“ - @onlyloupigs
“Please thank everyone for a great evening. We learnt a lot about behind the public scenes. Must look up some of the animals mentioned.” - @pakafe
“Adam Cook @DartmoorZoo has helped me realise just how important the behind the scenes work this zoo does is to other zoos and the animals.” - @TraumaCleaning
“I had such an amazing time meeting Benjamin Mee last night, from Dartmoor Zoo. He's truly inspirational.“ - @APieceofCake7
“Great night at Dartmoor Zoo's ‘An Evening with Benjamin Mee’ Thank you all at DZP.” - @mazhome
Contact Naomi today for information and booking.


Behind the scenes with the big cats

Behind the scenes with our Amur Tigers
One of the experiences we offer here at Dartmoor Zoo is being a Big Cat Keeper for the day, providing people with a chance to work alongside the keepers in the daily routine for the big cats. It’s an all-day, hands-on experience getting as close to the big cats as is possible to get without being eaten!

The day starts at 8am in the Jaguar Restaurant where participants meet the keepers they’ll be spending the day with. It’s a chance to have a cuppa and go through all the important health and safety briefing that is necessary for getting behind the scenes with the big carnivores.

Then it’s off to the keeper’s yard to prepare food for the morning feed. Most of the cats are fed every other day to approximate their natural feeding habits in the wild where not every hunt would be successful making daily feeding rare. In the wild, once a kill has been made they would eat until they are fit to burst then rest for two to three days conserving energy for the next hunt. Lions are known for sleeping around 20 out of 24 hours!

The morning round can take around two hours making sure all the animals are in their enclosures, they are healthy and showing normal behaviour. At each enclosure the keepers give the participants all the background information on the animals from a keeper’s point of view. They learn all about the individual animal’s personality and to how they would live in the wild.

One thing to bear in mind when doing an experience like this is that it’s quite common to come into contact with poo, which can be a bit stinky! Also, dealing with large carnivores means dealing with large amounts of raw meat and, when the feeding is done, lots of bones.

The highlight of the day is assisting with the big cat talk for members of the public to watch in the afternoon. Participants help the keepers put out the cats’ meat, clean their enclosure, (that’s where the poo and bones comes into it) then stand back and enjoy the public talk by the Presentation Team.

At the end of a long, often tiring day, you get to take home a certificate to say you did a Big Cat Experience at Dartmoor Zoo, as well as lots of photos and memories of getting up close and personal with our amazing cats. Oh, and don’t forget the lovely keepers!

This is one of our most popular experiences and it never fails to impress. You can find out more about our Big Cat Keeper for a Day experience and see what visitors have to say about it here.

Kate Stone
Senior Keeper