As an animal lover I’m slightly ambivalent about zoos. I love getting close up to magnificent beasts but at the same time, when you look deeper into larger mammal’s eyes, you do sometimes sense a modicum of sadness; it’s clear they just want to be free, bounding around the Serengeti, instead of being gawped at by idiot humans. Safari parks make more sense, but obviously, if you’re a city dweller, there’s no other way to get up close and personal to such a large swathe of animals.

Moral conundrums aside, this month the lovely press team at ZSL invited the whole family to come and experience a day out at London Zoo, and as Martha loves animals (mercilessly pulling our cat Nigel’s tail counts as love, right?) we thought it would be interesting to see if, at 23 months, she’s old enough to appreciate it, and whether or not the zoo catered for younger children like Martha. Here are the highlights:


Swimming with penguins – kind of…

Oldie but goodie. These guys are an ever-popular attraction here, and it’s easy to see why. Endlessly inquisitive, they love swimming up close to the edge of the tank (much to the crowd’s delight) and they also look brilliant when they waddle along the edges of their enclosure in true anthropomorphic style. There’s also an amphitheatre at one end of the enclosure for shows, and Martha loved climbing up and down these wooden stairs – perfect for helping to run down her endless supply of energy.


Lemurs – watch out for their tails and your children’s hands

I thought that the meerkats would be the clear favourites with my daughter, and although she was obsessed with them for about 30 seconds (fickle these children), it was the lemurs that got her most excited – so much so that she employed the old tail pulling trick on one poor unsuspecting creature that ran up to her. This enclosure is lots of fun as the lemurs share the greenery with you, darting over your head from branch to branch or coming up to sniff your shoes – they are super cute and very tame.

Land of the Lions

This ambitious new enclosure stole the show for me. A new way to dress up the fact that the elusive lions don’t really do that much but sleep, this whole area has been transformed to look like an authentic Indian village, replete with with market, temple and train station – think Dishoom but on a huge scale. It’s so well done that you forget you haven’t actually seen any large felines but no matter, Martha just enjoyed the space and the riot of colour – there are also monkeys dotted along the way to keep the animal quota up. Very impressive indeed.

The Aquarium

Halfway through the afternoon I did wonder what would happen if the heavens opened – and as if on cue, the rain arrived. Would the inclement weather stop all the fun? Would we have to shelter in the gift shop or buy overpriced burgers and chips at the restaurant? Turns out no; there’s plenty to at the zoo do if it’s raining. We took shelter in the Aquarium, which Martha absolutely loved. There are endless tanks of weird and wonderful fish to ogle, all the while keeping warm and dry. Our 6-month-old really loved looking at the luminous tropical fish, too.

The Butterfly Enclosure

Having large insects flying around my head in an enclosed, hot space isn’t my idea of a good time but Martha was in rapture here. The floaty, colourful butterflies kept her happy for ages but be warned, it’s very humid and very busy in there. However, it also provided much needed respite from the rain.

Trying to stop Martha from jumping into the meerkat enclosure

In summary, the creatures Martha could get close to were obviously her favourite; giraffes, lions and hippos didn’t really hold her attention because they were usually quite far away. Also, at such a young age, she doesn’t understand that there are hundreds of other animals to see, as well as the ones you’re currently looking at, so each time we went to leave one enclosure, she went ballistic until we reached the next one – be prepared for tantrums!

Also, beware of the bouncy castle and merry-go-round near the penguin enclosure, Martha spotted them and it cost us a few quid and about 45 minutes before we could get back to the animals. Yes, the zoo is relatively expensive, but if you make sure you get there early, bring a packed lunch and plenty of patience, it’s well worth it. Parents will sleep soundly too, because it’s absolutely exhausting chasing after your child when they’ve spotted yet another exotic must-see creature.