Monday, December 28, 2009

Monkey World!

Christmas went off without a hitch, very relaxed, lovely presents, saw a couple of people, had plenty to eat, marvellous. Then it was Boxing Day, the snow had thawed and the sun was shining and I really didn't want to waste the day by sitting indoors staring at the computer. We ummed and ahhed over a few ideas, but we didn't especially want to brave the sales, and we couldn't be sure of which of our favoured haunts for cups of tea and cake would be open on Boxing Day. So in a rare burst of spontaneity, we decided to go further afield.

orang-utan chewing a sock with yummy treats hidden insideWe came up with Monkey World in Dorset. The idea was that we could spend the remainder of Boxing Day packing in leisurely fashion and doing the three-hour drive down to the south coast, get to a hotel in time for dinner and a good night's sleep, and then in the morning we could get up nice and refreshed, see the monkeys for a few hours, and drive back home again. Unfortunately, while the park is open every day except Christmas Day, the admin office for bookings and information is only open Monday to Friday, so I couldn't phone in advance for the finer details of the access features.

Now here's the thing. Disabled access... well, it can be a bit hit-and-miss. An attraction boasting a blue wheelchair symbol could mean that there's an entire step-free multi-sensory experience within, enjoyable for anyone regardless of impairment. Then again, that blue wheelchair symbol might just mean that a standard-size manual wheelchair can get through the entrance gate and that somewhere on site is a single disabled loo which might be usable once the boxes of cleaning supplies have been moved elsewhere. It is in the interests of any attraction to claim to be easy to find, accessible, value for money and so on. The question is always to what extent the promotional materials match the reality.

Which is why, as Steve booked us in to our hotel for the night, I was picking up as many leaflets as I could see about other winter attractions in the Dorset area. Just in case.

orang-utan inspecting my mobility scooterHappily, I needn't have bothered. The claim on the website that they have "a selection of 25 motorised scooters" was not marketing-speak for "given enough notice, we can hire up to 25 scooters from other companies" - they really have got their own fleet of mobility scooters, charged up and ready to go, in a covered pen right next to the entrance gates. It's still safer to pre-book, especially at the busier times of year, but seriously - 25 scooters! It beats hands-down the one or two ex-NHS wheelchairs that are generally available elsewhere.

Unless you are very fit, I would definitely suggest using a powered mobility aid rather than a manual wheelchair because some of the slopes are quite steep. However, they are mostly surfaced with smooth tarmac, they aren't dangerously steep, and they certainly beat steps.

The whole park is accessible to the scooters with the exception of a "woodland walk" which, as you might guess, is a walk through some woodland. There aren't any monkeys in that section though, so I didn't feel I was missing much. Even the playground has an accessible swing*, and of the two accessible toilets, only one had a baby-changing table fixed to the wall, but... it was at wheelchair height! You may now retrieve your jaws from the floor.

Even more impressively (yes! there's more!) is the acknowledgement that accessibility does not begin and end with wheelchairs. If you aren't a wheelchair user but can only manage a certain amount of walking, there's a liberal scattering of memorial benches throughout the park. If you have impaired hearing, you can request printouts of the keeper talks. If you have impaired vision, you can request information in Braille, and there are also several tactile sculptures to enable you to get an idea of the features and scale of some of the park's residents. They've really thought about things, and you get the impression that they'd be open to other suggestions.

However this has turned into a post about access rather than about monkeys, and it was the monkeys we went to see.

baby chimp taking a ride on an adult's backMonkey World is primarily a rescue centre rather than a zoo, and the focus is very much on the rescue and rehabilitation of primates, followed by the education of humans. For instance, there are scores of capuchins and no gorillas. This is because there were a lot of capuchins needing rescue, whereas there aren't so many at-risk gorillas and there are better facilities available for the few that do crop up. There's no one there going "Bob, we've got to get a couple of gorillas, it'd be a real crowd-puller."

orang-utan looking out of the window at the cameraDo not go if you want to be "entertained", do not expect parades and cartoon characters, and I think if you were so crass as to ask to pet a monkey or have your photo taken with it, you would probably be ejected from the premises. Most of the residents have been rescued from a life where their "job" was to be a photo prop cuddling tourists.

Don't get me wrong, it is very entertaining to watch the monkeys playing, and to hear or read about their adventures and interactions. They even have their own TV show (in fact Steve and I may have been the only visitors not familiar with the monkeys from TV. I've since discovered that the programme is on Tuesday evenings when I go to knitting). But it's also really nice the way everything is done to fit around them being monkeys, rather than them being exhibits. None of it is Disney-ified or over-anthropomorphised. If anything it's the reverse - even the playground areas are set up to mimic the equipment in the enclosures, which I thought was a nice touch.

Adorability Award: Woolly MonkeyMy favourite group was probably the chimps. I loved watching them flying about the place in much the same way as I enjoy watching Parkour. Despite the enclosed space, there is a tremendous sense of freedom and of synchronicity with one's environment. I felt the most empathy with the orang-utans, and my Adorability Award goes to the woolly monkeys.

We had an absolutely wonderful time wandering round, despite the cold weather. I'm shattered now, but that was only to be expected and I think it was worth it.

All the photos were taken by Evilstevie and can be found here.

* No, I didn't.

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