|Baby meerkats enjoying the sunshine|
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.