Suddenly they are on us, flying wingtip to wingtip. The crowd thrills with delight… some duck, some shriek… children clap. They return… faster, lower… circling our heads as they head towards tall trees… flapping wide wings of bright blue, red and yellow and calling… squawky parrot voices. They are Macaws, native to Amazon rainforest. Our three-year old grandson’s eyes are riveted to the action – he claps and kicks his legs in excitement… I wince as his enthusiasm skims my shin. For this demonstration he is back in his accustomed place of privilege on my lap as I sit. He is our excuse to be here, amongst all this vibrant animal life and joyful excited people – inspired spectators and enthusiastic committed animal keepers. We are at the ZSL (Zoological Society London) Whipsnade. Now an enormous stork flies in, ‘Maggie’, and she alights close by and we can see every detail.
When we first came here a year ago we borrowed a traditional wheelchair – a heavy push for Peter with me plus a toddler. He has now got too heavy for that and more importantly, I am in my Formula One Chariot. The ease of working the Trekinetic’s joystick and the tech ability and curiosity of a modern infant evict him from my lap whenever the battery is on! Far from being resentful of the Magic Chariot, it is an inspiration to him. He views its tech sophistication and endlessly admires its nobbly 26inch off-road tyres and glittering multi-spokes.
African Grey Parrots now zoom in from nowhere like fighter planes. This devoted pair thrill the crowd even more as they squeal to each other, speeding ever faster, expertly manoeuvring by spreading red tails as they fly low over a noisy sea of waving arms. The keeper/commentator has told us to wave and shout and how the birds love it! The sad reality is that this spectacular hero of the childhood book ‘Harry’s Mad’ is now officially endangered. This is partly due to its popularity and celeb appeal – thanks to the worldwide pet trade in wild caught birds. How can people contemplate confining these fabulous fliers in a small cage? It would be like us doomed to live life out in a changing cubicle!
Here at Whipsnade and London Zoo, endangered species are nurtured and bred to be carefully reintroduced to their wild habitat. They are home to some spectacular successfully saved species – roaming Przewalski Horses and Pere David’s Deer. Such celebrities and the more recently arrived Sloth Bear thrill young and old when seen from Whipsnade’s train pulled by a vintage steam engine. (Getting the wheelchair into the designated place in the train is a doddle and the staff are very helpful and considerate.) For the adults such positive contributions of saving species for a better future offer encouragement in a world overflowing with so many concerns about mistakes, such as oceans of plastic rather than fish. Entry or membership fees help support 70 conservation initiatives around the world – even the loos give a buzz with wall maps of such projects.
Children getting the buzz abound. They whizz about on their scooters, twist, abruptly stop, and drift, all with nil traffic sense. At times it could be an assault course for any slow reacting wheelchair. This is where the light touch joystick comes in – I can stop immediately, no manoeuvring, simply let go and I stop.
Some surprised kids even look at such unexpected tech expertise with envy! For my part, maybe when I’m really an expert charioteer, I’ll get into top speed and join in with their wheelies!