The Yorkshire Wildlife Park describes itself as a "walkthrough wildlife adventure". It's not a safari park and it's not a zoo, but sits somewhere in between the two. When I was invited to tag along with my friends, I knew nothing about the park and was a little concerned that the visit would upset me, as I'm not a fan of seeing animals in small habitats. I was pleasantly surprised, however. The animals are, of course, in enclosures, but these are really spacious and cleverly designed so they do not feel like cages.
You enter the park and are immediately greeted by the meerkats, who are housed in a kind of sand pit enclosure, with areas for them to climb up (they also have an indoor section where they can escape from human eyes). The great thing about the design of their enclosure, like most or all of the other enclosures in the park, is that it is essentially 'open'. The sides of the pit are designed so that the animals cannot climb up them, which means the top of the enclosures can then be left 'open' (ie. with no roof), giving the impression of space and freedom. The meerkats are inquisitive little things, and seemed particularly interested in my ice cream. They were also listening to African music, which my friend thinks they must have specifically requested!
You move through the park passing the baboons, who are in a huge sunken enclosure which you view from above. It got particularly exciting, however, when we entered 'Lemur Woods'. You go through double doors, one only opening when the other is closed, and then you walk through the enclosure with the lemurs. They seem to be fairly shy animals and most of them were tucked away (you have to stick to the path so as not to intrude too much on their privacy).
The next section I particularly enjoyed was the South American section, where various animals 'hang out' together. The most interesting of these animals for me was the squirrel monkeys, who are tiny, playful little things, who are not remotely deterred by the presence of people and pretty much run round at your feet, play-fighting with each other! Opposite this section are the marmosets, who are even smaller than the squirrel monkeys! My friend and I had fun spotting the little creatures in the giant tree they play in.
You then move through the tiger and leopard enclosures. For obvious reasons, you don't get to walk through these enclosures, but you view them from a height so you can see the animals un-obscured by fences. The tiger enclosure claims to be one of the largest in Europe and includes two pools and a waterfall. The leopard is housed in "the biggest [enclosure] in the world" and has a huge climbing frame, which we were lucky enough to see him/her climbing up.
Opposite the Leopard are the giraffes, who just seem comically awkward after the graceful big cats.
Next you move through the wallaby enclosure, which was the absolute highlight for me, as the wallabies are all hanging out all over the paths, and you are allowed to pet them! Strangely, they seem indifferent to this human contact... they don't hop away, but nor do they show any indication that they enjoy a stroke! Its a strange but exciting experience.
You come to the end of the park with the lions, who were rescued from a zoo in Romania, where they were housed in small cages. I'm a little conflicted about seeing such huge and majestic animals like this in captivity, but its important to note that, following their rescue from the Romanian zoo, these animals would not have the skills to survive in the wild. They seemed perfectly happy watching the humans watching them...
The clever designs of the enclosures in the park means that you can get un-obscured views of the animals and even get up close and personal with some of them. This gives photographers a unique opportunity to practice wildlife photography in a controlled environment. Foolishly, I forgot to take a long lens with me (rookie error), so if I go again, this will be attached to my camera before I leave the house!
The last thing to mention is the conservation efforts of the park. The Yorkshire Wildlife Park Foundation raises funds which go towards rescuing animals who are housed in poor locations, such as the polar bear in a hot Mexican zoo who will soon be moved to the park, and towards research and education programs. You can read more about this here.
The Yorkshire Wildlife Park is not a cheap day out for a family, but the running costs of such a facility must be significant. However, there are periodically vouchers on sites like Living Social, which makes it much more affordable. There is more to see than I've mentioned, and you can get further information about the park here.