Originally published on www.kidspot.com.au
An unexpected treasure trove of animals in the Grampians.
The Grampians National Park is a well-known destination for families. There are endless campsites, bush walks, rivers and lakes to explore and for nature lovers it is ideal for native animals spotting. So, when I venture out that way with my son, I have my eyes peeled for blue-tongued lizards wandering onto the road or kangaroos who may hop into our path.
What I don’t expect is to find some of Victoria’s most amazing wildlife encounters at the Halls Gap Zoo.
When we arrive at the zoo it is time for our first animal experience of the day so we are puffing as we run to the meerkat enclosure. The cheeky meerkats are waiting at the door, jumping and running in circles around us, their growling a low, non threatening noise that surprises me. The second we sit down on the rocks they jump into our laps, growling and pawing at us with their long sharp claws.
“Their claws are used for digging,” says Pip, the zookeeper. “In the wild they have a burrow system and that’s where they live and where they sleep.”
These little boys (Fo, Fum, Meeni, Mo, Ross and Chandler) are juveniles. They are really playful and, it seems, hungry. Desperate for their broccoli, carrot, lettuce and scraps of fruit, they scratch and lick at us until we open our hands and allow them to eat.
A place where the zookeepers are possibly the heroes
We learn much about the way zookeepers teach and train the animals as we wander between enclosures with Pip. Keepers have clickers, bells or use a colour system to alert animals to the type of activity that is occurring. If they enter an enclosure with a red ball on the end of a stick, the animals know that it is feeding time. If the ball is yellow, they have learnt not to expect food. It is more likely a time when they will experience their enrichment program or have a health check.
Halls Gap Zoo is the only place in Victoria that you can have a Red Panda encounter.
In the wild Red Pandas can eat berries, fungi, roots, acorns, lichen and mice if they’re so inclined but here at the zoo they are fed on bamboo mush pellets, three times a day. The only time that changes is during encounters with humans where they receive pear and fig.
When we enter Shardool’s enclosure Pip reminds us not to pat him. She places food in our hands and we wait as he comes down from his cubby hole tentatively. He feels like a teddy bear crawling on us, his furry paw rests on my knee while he looks elsewhere, like an infant keeping in contact with his parent for security. Shardool’s eating style is really quite gentile, like he’s having high tea at the Windsor and I’m filled with love for him.
More personal encounters
The zoo also offers up close and personal encounters with giraffes, wombats, dingoes, snakes, tortoises and lizards. Halls Gap Zoo is home to over a thousand animals; 160 different species of birds and animals. They have everything from crocodiles to bison to quokka. The most recent addition is the white rhino, an enormous beast with a brand new purpose built enclosure.
We’re out in the rocky Victorian Grampians but this leafy property feels like an oasis. The huge trees, planted by the first owners of the zoo, tower over the playground offering shade and a beautiful backdrop for the treasures the zoo holds.
As we leave, a peacock fans out his beautiful feathers, a cock crows and native birds are chirp and babble like a choir. Zoo owner, Yvonne Culell, has told us that an exciting new animal is about to be introduced in the new year and we can’t wait to come back and discover what it is.