Last time we visited Chester Zoo our boy was just that little bit too young to understand it. It was a cold December day and, at two-and-a-half, his stamina didn’t allow for the most relaxing visit. In April this year, on a lovely Spring day, we enjoyed a leisurely stroll and monorail trip around the expansive (and expanding) site and were again impressed with what we saw – as was the young ‘un.

One of the main impressions I came away with was that, for an attraction which is largely dependent on what you spend once you get there, we never felt as if we were being sold-to. We weren’t forced to ‘exit through the gift shop’ and the only staff we saw were either tending to the flora and fauna or imparting information about them. As part of the current Bloom season, there were numerous talks, presentations and behind-the-scenes visits on offer, but we just wanted to do our own thing. Lion at Chester Zoo by Chris Payne

We spent an age watching the inquisitive wee mongooses (I’m assured this is the plural – even though mongeese is a more pleasing term) do their thing at Mongoose Mania – it’s a great display. Kids can go under the enclosure in a network of tunnels and then pop their heads up right in the middle of the habitat, mirroring the actions of the small rodents but encased in a Perspex bubble.

Yes, we covered all the big guns – the marquee-signings of lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos – but the highlight of the day for me was a visit to the Tropical Realm where there are more than 30 species of birds in action, all flitting around, a flash of crimson here, a spark of azure there. At some points the sheer beauty of these little gems took the breath away (especially the songbirds); passerines, as I learned they are called, account for half of the 10,000 species of bird on the planet.

Chimp at Chester Zoo by Chris PayneI could’ve watched the chimpanzees all day, trying to work out the social structure from the delicate and, at times, explosive interactions within the close-knit group. Was that mum, giving an unruly son a clip round the ear? Were these two wild brothers battling for their place in the hierarchy? The elders of the group had a sad wisdom in their faces which was heartbreaking. And then just as you were becoming transfixed on the unfolding scene, a young chimp would swagger up and pee on the window. The scamp.

Of course, our young ‘un was at his most animated when a family of ducks wandered past us. We were about to enter Spirit of the Jaguar, having caught a glimpse of a snoozing jaguar earlier on, when a mallard couple were nervously shepherding their brood through a picnic area. The tiny chicks kept stopping to pick up small pieces of bread (and Mini Cheddars, with which young ‘un kept attempting to entice them), and so were continually being separated from their parents. Small boys are only too happy to help out with the shepherding effort, although it’s always best to keep an eye on them (*WARNING: STEINBECK SPOILER*) lest an Of Mice And Men-style crushing incident takes place (it didn’t). The family of ducks eventually headed into an indoor eating area where they were promptly joined by a curious coot and a gaggle of toddlers. I love the fact that you go to a zoo for the exotic animals and tiddlers will generally be more taken with the squirrels by the cafe or a seagull they saw in the car park.

Tiger at Chester Zoo by Chris PayneSpirit of the Jaguar was great. At one point, having been transfixed by the terrapins in a stunning (almost split-screen) tank, my wife beckoned me into what I thought was was a hallway. I looked to my right and watched leaf-cutter ants busying themselves across a rope. Impressive wee fellas, ants. Then my son urged me to look up. A pair of two-toed sloths were just hanging above us. No bars, no glass, just height. No way they were going to climb down (and no way we were going to climb up), but there was a subtle thrill just from being in an enclosed space with these intriguing animals. A lovely touch. Parrot at Chester Zoo by Chris Payne

Despite the terrapin and sloth action, we exited the Spirit of the Jaguar a little disappointed, only because our jaguar had obviously gone off for a post-sleep kip and so we had only glimpsed her from a distance. We turned the corner to where the open-air enclosure was and were greeted by a black panther, sitting staring at us. A treat in itself, but then the sleepy jaguar ambled past and took her seat just along from the panther, above the waterfall. The pair of them then just sat and stared at us, as if we were the attractions, not them.

By Chris Payne

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Jaguar at Chester Zoo by Chris PayneLions and tigers and bears, oh my! is Chris Payne’s family-friendly blog. Here you will find articles on great stuff to do with the kids, along with sumptuous pics by Chris, Northern Soul’s Head Photographer.