home, home on the range…

Nothing quite beats waking up on a grey, rainy Saturday morning with four hours of sleep under your belt and plans to go walk around an animal park all day. A huge – and I repeat, huge – part of me was wanting to beg my friend Ellen to cancel the trip to Orana Wildlife Park we’d planned. But alas, a subtle text I sent asking, “Oh no! Rain! Are we still on?” was soon answered that yes, despite the other girls from work all canceling, she was still keen. Here goes nothing, I thought, and dragged myself out of bed.

I soon learned that Orana Park is New Zealand’s only open-range zoo, which, as Michael Graetz defines it in his thesis on the social objectives of zoos, means it “features very large exhibits modeled on the home ranges of large mammals.” Or, as Encyclopedia Britannica so officially describes it, the animals are “kept in more natural conditions in large paddocks,” something that came about in the 1930s beginning with the Whipsnade Park outside London. Basically, we’re not talking about concrete cages here. This is no ordinary zoo. I’d been to something similar about ten years ago on a family vacation to California. After a full day at the San Diego Zoo, we spent yet another day at the San Diego Wildlife Park (those are the kinds of things we do on holiday…). I don’t remember much except for a safari-like tour over the whole complex and feeding a giraffe. It’d been my mom’s idea, but as it usually goes with mothers and their children, it was my siblings and me who actually go the chance to do it.

And so I set out in the rain towards Ellen’s house, where the prospect of visiting Orana Park managed to entice three of her flatmates to crazily forego their Saturday morning sleep-ins as well and join us. After a much-needed stop for petrol and coffee, we arrived at the zoo – and oh was it open-range. Spread out over 80 hectares – roughly 200 acres or so – you’re immediately struck by the spaciousness of it all. It was certainly another world from Willow Bank, where your first impression is of how dense the vegetation is with lush ferns spilling out over all the walkways. Instead of wooden walkways here, though, are wide paths that weave in and out of open fields, hills, trees, and water – you’re certainly not in the suburbs anymore.

Founded in 1976 by a collection of wildlife lovers, the park gets its name from the Maori word for “welcome” or “place of refuge” – how cool is that? And it’s aptly chosen, as well, for the park plays an important role in protecting and breeding many endangered species, including the kiwi, tuatara, and pateke. On a whole, there are 400 animals from over 70 species who call Orana Park home. It’s certainly not something I’d expected to find in Christchurch’s backyard!

First on our list to see were the meerkats, oh-so-reminiscent of little Timon from the Lion King. It was hilarious to watch them scurrying around, ducking into the holes they’d burrowed, and of course, the classic meerkat on look-out duty. But as Ellen lamented, “It just makes me sad they have nothing to look out for.” It was the same with the cheetahs, who despite their majestic look, only lazed about on the grass. “They’re such posers,” Sam says, but Ellen quickly replies, “Well wouldn’t you be too if you were that epic?” Touché. But there was something strange about it all, from the meerkats and cheetahs to the water buffalo and zebras. It was at the enclosure of sprinbok, though, that it hit me: Where are all the predators?

A strange thought indeed, but it’s one thing to see animals laying motionlessly about behind fences and concrete walls – quite another when they’re supposed to be in their “natural” environments.  Nowhere was this truer than with the lions. It was actually quite impossible to differentiate between the male and female lions. And before you think I’m an utter idiot and say, “Uh, the mane?” this was due to the fact that the male lions have all been neutered – and for an understandable reason, as it’s to prevent inbreeding between siblings. But apparently testosterone is what makes the manes grow, so no testosterone = no manes. Nothing has ever broken my heart like the look in the eyes of those mane-less males. Whether or not they even realized it, I felt all loss of dignity and pride for them. We debated this for a while, especially because Ellen’s flatmate Emma is vegan. Go to a zoo with a vegan and you’re guaranteed to have some interesting conversations.

Having discussed the various benefits and disbenefits of the loss of freedom in exchange for the secure life in a zoo, it was time to move on, as Emma asked, “Can we please make our way to the rhinos now?” Sam replies, “I’m just trying to think of any other time in your life you’d say that.” After the rhinos, we headed towards the giraffes for a chance to handfeed them. Thrilling, I know, but we did pay a $25 entrance fee after all, so we fully intended to get our money’s worth. A zoo worker began passing out handfuls of branches to each of us and instructed everyone to “act like a tree” for the best results. If anyone thought she was joking, another worker actually demonstrated by holding the branch out stiffly with one arm while standing straight, still, and tall…just in case there was any doubt on what to do.

And so we made our way through the predator-less place of refuge that is Orana Park, and the whole time I was reminded of an article my dad sent me last month. Featured in the Washington Times, it was called “New Zealand rated most peaceful, U.S. 83” (Jennifer Harper, 9 June 2009). It begins, “Americans pining for a peaceful existence might consider moving to New Zealand, the most peaceful nation on Earth according to the 2009 Global Peace Index released Tuesday by an Australian-based research group…” Now your first thought is probably a lot like mine – how the heck do you even go about measuring something as vague as peace? But the researchers involved in the study argue peace is anything but vague, measuring it against 23 indicators such as “gun sales, the number of homicides, the size of the military, the potential for terrorism, and the number of people in jail.” Who knew?

So apparently I’m living in the most peaceful country in the world, not that you would think it watching the nightly news or anything, but it is reassuring to know that, much like the residents of Orana Park, I can fall asleep at night knowing this is as probably as safe as it gets.



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