“How much would you pay for a piece of art made from animal poop?”
It’s not a question I’ve ever thought about before, to be quite honest.
I’m in the minority, it turns out.
“The last piece from these guys went up for auction for £30,000.”
The “boys” in question are the pygmy hippos of the ZSL London Zoo, whose talents include wagging their tails to spray their feces with homosexual abandon. Enterprising zookeepers — probably desperate to get some cash back after Covid had been forced to close the zoo for a long time and cut off its main revenue stream — decided to harness this unique skill by setting up stenciled canvases to produce the one-of-a-kind pieces.
It’s one of the countless interesting facts intertwined with our exclusive after-hours tour of London Zoo, part of the new Twilight overnight offer. It’s every animal lover’s dream: for a decent amount of money, guests can go to bed next to the lion’s enclosure at night. Opportunities to repeat “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” repeatedly, the package includes some truly bucket-list experiences, including two expert tours after all the other visitors have left for a day.
And it’s only when the zoo closes that many of its residents really come to life.
On arrival, we drop bags into our pad, a cute hut-like affair with en-suite shower a stone’s throw from where the zoo’s two lions, Arya and Bhanu, are chilling out or pacing relentlessly, respectively.
We start our Night at the museum-esque tour here, with a glass of sparkling wine (which pleasantly heightens the luxury factor) and two enthusiastic guides. First of all, we are treated to a geographical overview – apparently one of the most frequently asked questions is why the Land of Lions design was inspired by the Sasan Gir National Park in western India, rather than the lion king aesthetic we have all come to associate with the king of the jungle. This is because these are Asiatic lions rather than African lions: the main difference for the males is that they have a shorter, thinner mane, plus a noticeable fold of skin that runs the length of the abdomen.
In the silence of a zoo cleared of gamblers, every noise from the inhabitants – who make up a fairly rowdy mob – is amplified. This is especially true of Bhanu’s roar on the day we visit, although we’re told it’s nothing compared to when he really gets going.
“He’s just pacing and roaring because we’re here,” says our guide. “He makes it clear that this is his territory – and that Arya is his wife.” The female in question looks stunned; there’s something lovely about his chivalrous parading when it doesn’t seem to bother her.
Moving on, we hit the camels, who are coaxed into appearing with some appetizing looking eucalyptus branches (the smell really does it for them, we’re told). With summer approaching, one of them is looking a little ragged — he’s losing his hair in preparation for the warmer months, and who can blame him? We’re quizzed on the ultimate red herring: “What’s in a camel’s hump?” The answer that we were all missold in our youth is predictably trotted out – “Water?” — before that myth is officially debunked by a fellow guest who is a bit of a nature lover.
“They’re made of fatty tissue!”
mmm. I think I preferred the “fake news” answer.
Then it’s the aforementioned pygmy hippos, which are a world apart from the non-pygmy variety — about a tenth their weight, and prone to living alone rather than in 30-strong groups — before getting past the warthogs. swing to throw regular popcorn at them as an evening snack. I’m a little peckish at this point, but I’m pleased to hear that dinner — the kind designed for humans — is next on the agenda. We’re taken to a private room adjacent to the zoo’s main restaurant and served hearty platters of blackened salmon with lime and coriander mayonnaise, along with sautéed thyme and garlic new potatoes, followed by chocolate brownie with raspberry puree and cream.
By the time we’re done, the sun has disappeared below the horizon – but our work has only just begun. Much of the job of the keepers is called “enrichment” – creating activities to ensure the animals are involved, often mimicking the conditions they would experience in the wild. Sometimes this means they have to work for their food (the lions often have to catch their dinner while a cable car whizzes over the enclosure), while sometimes they are given special games or toys to play with.
Tonight it’s our turn to help. We don gloves and masks and prepare two enrichment activities for the mongooses we will visit the next morning: spritz balls with a variety of perfumes while they go crazy for scents, and hide live mealworms in layers of soil so they can find them and can nibble on it.
Now that it is quite dark, we follow our guides closely to see the porcupines. Using red light instead of a flashlight to make sure we don’t hurt their sensitive eyes, the staffers point out the newest addition to the family – Hershey, a baby porcupine (or porcupine) born to parents Hettie and Henning in March of this year .
Giving birth to a ball of spikes may not sound like the most pleasant experience, but we learn that babies’ spines are soft at first, before they harden after they’re born. And thank goodness.
We are not nocturnal animals ourselves, so at this point we are led back to our lion-adjacent digs and warned not to roam the zoo at night. The caretakers also point out that we may be awakened by that master of mimicry, the African Gray Parrot, making all sorts of creepy noises (including the sound of children laughing – not creepy) not at all†
And yet sleep comes easy in the Land of the Lions. It’s actually hard to believe that we’re in Zone 1 of a capital city, in the quiet of the cabin, far from the busy roads of London.
I wake up refreshed the next morning, ready for a full English, followed by our final tour, during which we can hang out with a Komodo dragon, watch the mongoose community play with our pre-prepared enrichment activities, and get a private look at the zoo’s world’s leading Galápagos tortoise enclosure, that uses groundbreaking technology to mimic the conditions of their natural environment in the wild.
I’m not ready to leave – and if I didn’t have the small business of a job to achieve, I wouldn’t have to. The experience includes all-day admission to London Zoo on the day you check in and the day you check out. But alas, it’s time to go. There’s only time for one more round of “be gone, be gone, be gone, be gone” before heading back to Regent’s Park, Bhanu’s stately roar still echoes in my head.
A lodge for two people costs from £192.50 per person per night (based on twin share), with each additional child from £65 each.
Includes free drink on arrival; two exclusive after-hours tours of the zoo at sunset and after dark; an exclusive guided tour in the morning after breakfast, including a meet & greet with a caretaker; overnight stay in a private lodge – double or twin beds, en-suite; complimentary toiletries, tea and coffee making facilities; two-course dinner and breakfast buffet; entry to ZSL London Zoo for two days on either side of visitors’ residence; free parking. On the second day, guests are also welcome to visit ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.