Chester Zoo Review – Visitor Guide, Tips and What to See

Chester Zoo is a certainly a big day out, with over 400 species and 11,000 animals scattered across 112 lovingly landscaped acres. Many people just turn up and wander around, which is fine by the way, however read on for some tips that could give you an even more enjoyable experience. Firstly though, here’s some reasons why a visit here is hugely recommended.

WHY VISIT

In 1931 founder George Mottershead pioneered a new style of zoo in the UK; using moats & ditches it was a ‘zoo without bars’. This was a radical departure from the Victorian zoos of the past where animals were housed in cramped concrete cells with no thought to their needs or welfare. Mottersheads mantra has continued with Chester becoming a leading agent for both conservation and breeding programmes. It’s the most-visited wildlife attraction in Britain and rated within the top 15 zoos in the world.

Popularity doesn’t always mean quality of course, however Chester has achieved all this by developing environments that allow many of it’s animals the space and confidence to act naturally. Essentially by visiting Chester Zoo you get the opportunity to see animals interacting with each other, rather than just enduring and being distracted by the viewing public. If you haven’t been for years or don’t normally approve of Zoos then do try Chester, it may not be perfect but it’s ability to educate and inspire ourselves and future generations should not be underestimated.

WHAT TO SEE

So many things to see, we all have our special favourites, here’s mine, and why;-

Elephants of the Asian Forest –  Located at the front of the Zoo the Elephant House has greatly reduced viewing points to more suit it’s function as a sanctuary for the big grey beasts. Both elephant & visitor however seem very happy with the large outdoor enclosure which has also been altered over the years. Now with private screens at one end and a pool & waterfall at the other providing entertainment for the elephants and the high viewing gallery, especially when the babies tussle in the water. Interestingly the far wall now features some holes accessed at the back by keepers. Here food is hidden in certain holes which the animals having to explore these to find a reward. Breeding has been extremely successful and the elephants are understandably always popular.

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Monkey House & Island – A huge personal favourite, all the indoor enclosures are cleverly arranged to engage the monkey’s interest. Between periods of rest they spend much time & energy chasing each other and performing the most incredible acrobatics. Cute babies roll around having play fights which can explode around the walls, various props are used and every height and angle is explored. The tip here is if there’s nothing happening or they are just resting, then move on quickly and call in later. If something’s happening stay, watch and enjoy. Remember if no animals are inside then check outside, an area to the right of the entrance (opposite the Monkey Island monorail Station) gives a view over a moat to the large bushy island where the Lion Tailed Macaques often roam as a group, playing, feeding, exploring, climbing, chasing etc. On the other side of the house is an outdoor enclosure for the long tailed Columbian Spider Monkeys. This starts narrowly with tightropes leading from their quarters, then extends down the whole length of the house. Visibility is limited to give them some privacy so many visitors wander past without realising that if they stop and have a little patience they get to see a performance by some of the best acrobats in the zoo. Just last week they were launching and swinging themselves off the posts & tapes with arms outstretched onto thin conifer branches which bent virtually down to the ground breaking their fall. Notice how they use their long tails here too, it’s captivating stuff, so do spend time here if they are out, be patient, it can all kick off in a flash 🙂

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFruit Bat Forest – And now for something completely different, Europes largest free flight bat cave! This dark cavern features a semi circular walkway with various sized bat species flying freely around you, some extremely close. For anyone who enjoys the sensation of a breeze caused by the passing wings of a giant fruit bat, then this is most definitely for you. Give your eyes a minute to accustom then move very slowly, the highlight being the ‘cave’ section where bats whiz through in all directions. A wonderful experience for the kids and it’s possible the bats love it too. Definitely an enclosure without bars and for many the best experience in the zoo, so if you have time try to nip back later for another go.

Realm of the Red Ape – Sumatran & Bornean Orangutans are the star in this 2007 redevelopment of the old Orang House. Visitors access by ramps either side up to a high level gallery winding between the indoor and outdoor areas. Indoor enclosures have large high ceilings filled with tarzan style tapes suspended from the ceilings. The Orangs seem to enjoy swinging through the air with the greatest of ease. Food is supplied from the top which the Orangs find either by climbing up, or by foraging on the floor. Outside there are huge enclosures filled with bushes, grass, tall climbing posts & hammocks. These can only be seen properly from the inside so the Orangs can roam around distraction free. Due to the limited viewing points the house is best visited when quieter, late is good. Dotted around are additional exhibits from the area including lizards, monitors, bugs and 2 massive Reticulated Pythons. Ive seen people pointing at the massive Reticulated Python without realising that there’s a bigger ginormous python in there as well. Named Bali it’s nearly 22ft long and reputed to be the biggest snake in Europe. They are both fed on whole turkeys, chickens or rabbits every 6-8 weeks. Maybe not so cute but the thickness of Bali is amazing and if you’re lucky she may be fully outstretched, a sight you wont forget. You may never see a bigger snake in a zoo again – and if you see one in the wild, you’re in trouble 🙂

Viewing Gallery

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Chimpanzees – The Chimp Pavilion has a semi circular visitor access around a glass enclosure containing a moat & huge high climbing frame. You can usually tell if the Chimps are in by the sound of visitor screams & laughter! They have some interesting habits – the Chimps, not the visitors, actually sometimes both:-). There’s lots of information inside about 25 characters on show, with the oldest being Boris born in 1966, the year England won the World Cup!! Many people might miss the fact that they are privileged to be in the company of one of the Worlds longest established society of Zoo Chimps. They have grown up together developing a defined social hierarchy illustrated by where they are on the social ladder, (the climbing frame). You get a very close up view of the chimps in here and a sense of how powerful and intelligent they are. It’s always an interesting encounter, indeed once I saw 2 young chimps creating havoc chasing each other around the ceiling until it was all too much for an old senior Chimp, who promptly clipped both behind the ears to calm them down. At the side of the enclosure is a wall containing holes, if you’re lucky you might see Chimps stripping plant branches down to a long twig which they poke down the holes to get a food reward. At the back are private sleeping quarters where they can also get some peace & quiet. The Pavillion maybe looking a bit dated but outside the Chimps can access a huge Island where they can lose themselves in dense areas of tall bushes with climbing poles, ropes & hammocks. Apparently in the early days Chester was the first in the world to house chimps behind only a 12ft moat. Nobody knew for sure if Chimps could swim. Luckily it turned out they couldn’t. At least that’s what we think, who knows what goes on at night 🙂

Wise Old Chimp Chimp Pavillion in Residence Its all Kicking Off Baby Chimps Playing

MORE HIGHLIGHTS

  • Tropical Realm – Lots to see in this large indoor house with free-flying birds, snakes, spiders, lizards & caymans. Luckily it’s only the birds that are free flying. Try and spot at least one creature in each enclosure – not always easy.
  • Spirit of the Jaguar – Opened in 2001 with two large diverse indoor enclosures, one sparse (Savannah), one densely vegetated (Rainforest). Outside there’s another two huge enclosures with small viewing areas. The Waterfall enclosure on the right is usually best but you don’t always get to see the Jaguars, of course if you call back you may be in luck. Also in the House are Sloths, Leaf Cutter Ants & an Aquarium.
  • Giraffes – Outdoor area and a typical house where you get up close and marvel at the size of these graceful animals. Notice their eyelashes, like they’ve been at the Mascara. Breeding is very successful and the babies are always popular.

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  • Black Rhinos – (Tsavo Experience) Recent redevelopment built to aid breeding of this critically endangered noble species.
  • Meerkats – Tucked away off the main route unfortunately, though always fun.
  • Lions – In a huge outdoors enclosure full of trees yet usually resting or asleep, so sometimes I miss these out or pass quickly.
  • Tigers – usually more interesting especially now there’s cute babies!
  • Butterfly House – If the Bat Cave was too much then check out this impressive free flying butterfly walk. Some imaginatively coloured ones fluttering around, with caterpillars, & chrysalis at the end. Good for kids & indoors too.
  • Komodo Dragons (Islands in Danger) – they don’t do much, but Flora, one of Chesters Komodos, made headlines when she gave birth without ever meeting the male. Called parthenogenesis this was the first known example in Komodos!  The 8 babies are now in zoos across the world, unfortunately Flora died in 2013. The house also has an Avery.
  • Spectacled Bears – These small bears have gown up to be big bears & with specs!!
  • Giant Otters – These replaced the Sealions & are fascinating creatures close up.
  • Penguins – Swimming Penguins equals kids & crowds so it’s always busy.
  • Cheetahs – Lovely animals with a mean face, extremely cute babies born again Aug 2013. The Yurt can be a good spot to see them & also a good indoor picnic spot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACheetah & Babies Aug 2013

  • Red Pandas – One of the cutest animals, look up, they’re often high up in the trees.
  • Painted Dogs – Recent cleverly & imaginatively constructed exhibit on the far paddock side of the Zoo featuring a pack of Painted Dogs. Cuter than Hyenas they are great to watch when they move around together.
  • Sand Lizards – Yeah I know, 96% of people walk past this outdoors enclosure with a cursory glance as I used to. Until the day I spotted a Sand Lizard at the front and realised there were actually lizards inside! They aren’t easy to see but I now always feel compelled to spot at least one with my son before we can move on (summer only). Maybe it’s just us 🙂 If these don’t grab you then the Buffy Headed Capuchins (small monkeys) next door might.
  • The Zoo Grounds & Gardens – Mention must be made of the Award winning Gardens that are maintained throughout the Zoo including many picnic spots, the Chinese Rock Garden and Grasses near the Komodos.
  • Special Events – Always check the Zoo website before visiting for news of new babies etc. Currently there’s the Big Bugs exhibition near Islands In Danger, the kids will love these giant moving robot bugs!

GET THE MOST FROM YOUR DAY

Ok, so you’ve just paid your admission, strolled through the gates and glanced at the Zoo map. So what’s next, go clockwise, anti clockwise, head for your favourite animals, maybe eat first then go from there? You could do any of these, but bear in mind the 2 challenges;-  SIZE and TIME – it really is a big place involving a lot of walking with lots of space between animals. It’s difficult or near impossible to see everything, however in trying to see everything you could end up seeing nothing. There is some logic here honestly.

  1. Time – All my early visits went the same way, it felt like there were bags of time at the start to wander around, then stop for food, then suddenly realise that closing time was drawing near and you’ve only seen half a zoo. It sounds obvious but there’s a lot to see and sometimes it means prioritising early and missing stuff out to ensure you have the time to see all your favourites, without feeling rushed.
  2. Dont Rush – You can easily start mentally ticking animals off whist your head’s buried in the map planning where to go next. Try not to just take a 30 seconds ticked glance before quickly moving on, or a set time per enclosure. It’s all about quality of time.
  3. Catching them at their best – At times the animals are asleep/resting/out of site, or just doing nothing particularly interesting. Check first that they aren’t in their other enclosure (inside or outside), and if not then quickly move on. If its one of your favourites then….
  4. Try Coming Back Later – At some points in the day many of your favourite animals will be doing wonderful things. By returning later you are increasing your chances of seeing it. It’s the same if some exhibits are just too crowded, eg Bats, Big Cats, Penguins.
  5. If Somethings Happening then stay and watch – stay, watch and enjoy if the animals are moving around, make the most of it as these are the experiences you’ll remember later, this is what you’re here for.
  6. Info Boards – Theres plenty of info around the exhibits, do try and catch some as it can be genuinely surprising.
  7. The Numbers Game – Good in the Tropical House, have a quick look at an exhibit, announce the number of lizards etc you’ve seen, then let your partner/kids try to spot them all. Of course if they see more you have to spot these too. After a few mins you can give clues like top, floor etc 😉 Many lizards are right in front but your eyes miss them.
  8. Zoo Cafes, Yes or No? – Many consider these necessary yet overpriced with a poor choice. I’ve never been keen, preferring if absolutely necessary the small quieter café at the rear of Oakfield House. The added problem is they are a time killer. Sitting in a busy, noisy food hall after queuing for food and finding a table seems a waste when you’ve paid to see animals; so…..
  9. Take a Picnic –Absolutely recommended as you get to eat where, what & when you want, avoiding the queues & crowds. Cheaper too.  There’s so many suitable spots around the zoo inside & outside. Even better if you do this within sight of some animals.
  10. Animal Feeding Times – Always a favourite & always popular, these can be fantastic opportunities to see animal behaviour. Nowadays though I rarely bother. They can often be another time eater, waiting ages for the food to arrive then finding your view obscured by the crowds. Once finished the whole crowd leaves together looking for the nearest interesting animal or next feeding session, so you end up caught in a permanent crowd bubble.
  11. Monorail & Water bus – decent fun, though more novelty than useful for getting around and the queues at busy periods can waste that precious time. Note both of these cost extra and there are only 2 stations on the monorail.
  12. Wheelchairs & Pushchairs – available to the east of the elephants, always advisable to book beforehand by ringing the zoo, this is essential at busy periods and best done the previous day. Access is excellent to exhibits with lots of space, note as an alternative to going up the ramps at the Orang house, there’s a lift on the south side.
  13. Gift Shops – Up to you, I never bother, I’m there to see real animals 🙂
  14. A Late Finish – The zoo gets quieter as 5pm approaches (particularly the outskirts), this can be the ideal time to call in at previously busy places. Examples being most of the Houses, Big Cats, Penguins, Bat Cave and the Aquarium. Some animals do disappear into their quarters later, so this isn’t an exact science.
  15. My favourite – finish in the Orang House Better views here late on, where sometimes a female might choose to swing over to a viewing window, carefully arrange the tapes to support themselves then sit against the glass eyeing up the visitors. Sometimes with a baby too. It’s a fantastic encounter.
  16. Tip on Leaving – Elephants can still be outside, also check out between the Wheelchair point & Bembe Kitchen Café as the Wharthogs & Mongooses can make an appearance.
  17. Visit Out of Season & in Winter – The many indoor & covered exhibits means the Zoo can be enjoyed all year, winter is much quieter, whilst Xmas is recommended with a nice atmosphere. Just remember it’ll be cold out, warm indoors 🙂
  18. Take your Camera – all the pics here have been snapped over many visits.
  19. Finally there’s a Chester Zoo App worth downloading before you visit

Routes – This really depends how much time you have, where your favourite animals are and how much energy you have. Always nice to start with the Elephants then possibly the Monkeys then if you have time, do the paddock enclosures anti clockwise – Rhinos, Meerkats, Painted Dogs & Zebras. This gets a lot of walking done early & you can have a rest in Fruit Bat Forest. Then over the walkway for the next section or down to the Monkeys again & over the bridge. I always like to finish the day in the Orangs after the Jaguars & Giraffes etc, some of my favourites are here and it seems quieter then. Some may prefer to start here as you can be knackered after a long day. Nowadays I’m pushing a wheelchair so sometimes leave out the paddock enclosures to concentrate on the others. Good luck 🙂

In summary – please remember you’ll rarely get to see all the animals. Even if you only manage half the zoo and still enjoy a great day, it’s far better than rushing around ticking them off and missing all the fun.

Whatever your thoughts on captive animals, Zoos like Chester have a unique ability to educate and inspire both ourselves and future generations. Conservation must surely become more real and relevant to the general public when they can get to meet these animals up close. Thanks for reading 🙂

Thanks for reading, hope it helps, please leave a comment if anything needs updating 🙂

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About MART IN THE HILLS

Hillwalker with dodgy knees and dodgier sense of humour. Lover of the outdoors, Lakes, Highlands, Cheviots, nature, good food, real ale and leaf tea.
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