First, we see two endangered 300-pound Amur tigers, Sinda and Bira, lolling lazily on their backs, dropping giant tongues of pink.
Then a herd of rhinos sniffing and pushing, while a group of European bison keep their distance.
And next, a troop of pesky baboons, ripping first one, then a second, of the antifreeze nozzles out of the hood of our car, before triumphantly flashing their bulging bums.
With the yellowed landscape in front of us, we could be more likely to rumble across the plains of the African savannah south of the Sahara than at Knowsley Safari on Lord Derby's 2,500 hectare estate between Liverpool and Manchester, right on the A58.
Hand to mouth: Lord and Lady Derby, Edward and Caroline Stanley, feed their giraffes at Knowsley Safari on Lord Derby's 2,500 acre estate between Liverpool and Manchester
Whether we are in Merseyside or Kenya or not, it is a truly uplifting experience to see some of the most formidable and endangered animals in the world graze, stretch, scratch and yawn just yards from our now wrecked car.
Not that anyone would see her in the next few weeks. Because for reasons no one can explain, and despite hectic lobbying by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) and the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), the government has closed all safari parks as part of this second English curfew.
What drove Edward and Caroline Stanley (the Earl and the Countess of Derby) crazy.
After all, visitors to this five-mile safari drive are safely locked in their Covid-safe vehicles – only a madman would be with these beasts on the other side of the glass or, as Caroline puts it: “It is generally advisable to keep social distance from a lion ! & # 39;
Care has been taken to ensure that visitors are protected. A single direct test-and-trace incident has not been reported in any UK safari park.
Confusingly, however, under the new guidelines, all other outdoor parks, gardens, parks, manors, and botanical gardens, including Kew Gardens, will remain open.
& # 39; It doesn't make sense. It's inconsistent, ”says Edward, the 19th earl and a retired soldier and investment manager who inherited the Knowsley estate, including the 550-acre safari park, from his uncle in 1994 at the age of 32.
"There are over five million people within a half-hour radius who can go to a McDonald & # 39; s driveway and pick up a Big Mac, but can't come here and see a big cat!" he says.
For reasons no one can explain, despite hectic lobbying, the government closed all safari parks as part of this second English lockdown. Pictured: a baboon sits on a hood
Safari parks – "where animals can roam freely and people are locked up" – emerged in the late 1960s thanks to partnerships with circus impresario Jimmy Chipperfield, first in Longleat in 1966, then in Woburn and Knowsley in 1971.
In 1980 there were 25. Only five left – Knowlsey, Woburn (owned by the Duke of Bedford), Longleat (Duke of Bath), the West Midlands Safari Park and Blair Drummond in Scotland.
Everyone is grappling with the latest lockdown. "We all email all the time," says Edward. "We're all in the same boat, in the same mess."
"It's a very simple business model," adds Caroline as she pats Orbit, one of Knowsley's two giraffes. "People who come through the gate pay the salaries of the people who look after the animals and for the animals' food."
The bills here are certainly terrifying. The two tigers alone tear through 30 kg of first-class meat every week, while the wolf pack eats 700 kg of meat. The running costs of the park – either open or closed to the public – are in excess of £ 450,000 per month.
Even in a good year with the usual 600,000 visitors, the park loses about £ 200,000 a month in winter, but animal welfare always comes first.
Since Edward took office, he's poured money back into it and updated every single animal house.
Visitors to this five-mile safari drive are safely locked in their Covid-safe vehicles – only a madman would be on the other side of the glass with these beasts or, as Caroline puts it, “It is generally advisable to socially distance yourself as a lion ! & # 39; Pictured: an African lion in its enclosure
“I don't want to sum up how much it all cost! But it shows how philosophies are changing. & # 39;
Now the antelope house has underfloor heating from air heat pumps, the hoof bed has solar panels and a rainwater collection system, and the tigers are lounging in a new 1.6 million pound enclosure.
However, there is no cash in the pot this year.
The first closure – from March 23 to June 15, without notice and over Easter and the May holidays – was a financial disaster.
The Easter holidays alone typically make up at least 40 percent of the annual revenue for most safari parks and zoos.
And while the vacation schedule was a lifesaver for the staff outside the house, the zookeepers, some of whom have worked at Knowsley for 40 to 50 years and are so dedicated that they plastered photos of their charges all over their homes, are a constant.
"The animals still need to be weeded out, fed, cared for," says Edward.
And according to ALVA's Bernard Donoghue, this second lockdown could overturn smaller parks. "Everyone struggles and everyone has to prioritize to keep their animals fit and healthy, which means letting go of dedicated and passionate employees."
"There are over five million people within a half-hour radius who can go to a McDonald & # 39; s driveway and pick up a Big Mac, but can't come here and see a big cat!" says Edward, the 19th earl and former soldier and investment manager
Not something Chris Smart, 36, Knowsley's head of the ungulates (ungulates, you ask) can imagine.
“Everyone is worried about their work. I've been doing this since I was 16. I work long hours, but it's my life, my passion, that's what I'm trained for. & # 39;
Many companies are in a total crisis; some have already closed.
Living Coasts in Devon went under during the initial lockdown. It was a relatively small zoo, but it still took more than five months to resume its animal collection.
Andy Hall from BIAZA tells me that four other smaller zoos have collapsed and others are likely to follow suit.
The larger safari parks should be able to mop the animals, but when one of them fails the pressure is really big.
“It can take two years before a herd of elephants is back. Zoos are under pressure everywhere and it would be a mammoth task to house a large collection, ”says Hall.
Earlier this year, Dr. Sharon Redrobe, CEO of Twycross Zoo in the Midlands, caused a sensation when she said she would euthanize her animals instead of compromising on any aspect of their care. Nothing Lord Derby would ever entertain.
The Daily Mail writer Jane Fryer gets a tour of Knowsley Safari Park Lord and Lady Derby (pictured right together) feed their giraffes
"We're not going to euthanize these endangered species," he says firmly.
The Derby family is fortunate to have deeper pockets than most and a handy talent for a good marriage – "We married into the family that was here in 1385. A good strategic marriage!" – and storms.
You were on the winning side at the Battle of Bosworth and presented the paper in Parliament that led to the abolition of slavery.
But the safari park is only Edward and Caroline's responsibility. Knowsley Hall, a 110,000-square-foot listed mound, is usually packed with weddings and corporate events. But not now. Pretty much everything since March has been canceled.
"I can totally understand why we can't do weddings and hospitality – it's a breeze," says Caroline. & # 39; But safaris? They are in cars! & # 39;
During the initial lockdown, much of the hall was covered in dust for months – not good timing as they recently paid £ 100,000 to repair the roof over the 45-foot dining room.
So Edward had to get creative.
He rejigged their finances, took out a £ 5 million coronavirus business interruption loan, and then started selling things – property, paintings, some busts.
Even more confusing, under the new guidelines, all other outdoor parks, gardens, parklands, manors, and botanical gardens, including Kew Gardens, will remain open. Pictured: Bactrian camels from Central Asia
"It's painful, but you have to act responsibly, protect animals, keep everything going," says Edward.
As pretty much everyone agrees, the government's “zoo fund,” a £ 100 million pot to save floundering parks, is a total disaster.
“To qualify, you need to show proof that you are 12 weeks away from bankruptcy. Nobody wants to show that they are not a viable company. & # 39;
So far, only five zoos have had around £ 3 million between them. The rest hobbled on, cut costs, made painful layoffs, and conformed – cutting off anything but animal welfare.
Some, like the Twycross Zoo, have been forced to rely on adoption programs, anonymous donations, local goodwill, and generosity. They asked the locals to donate money, excess food, and even tasty twigs from their gardens so that the giraffes could eat 34 cm of prehensile tongues with them.
Many breeding programs have been suspended – not always successful, as contraception can be expensive and cumbersome, and some animals, especially penguins, are just too resourceful.
Here in Knowsley, the two endangered tigers should have just made a whoopee with a man from the Copenhagen Zoo who was due to be relocated this summer, but instead lounged around listlessly. (There are only 500 Amur tigers in the wild, so each new cub is a triumph.)
As pretty much everyone agrees, the government's “zoo fund,” a £ 100 million pot to save floundering parks, is a total disaster. “To qualify, you need to provide evidence that you are 12 weeks away from going broke. Nobody wants to show that they are not a viable company. & # 39;
Meanwhile, staff were working around the clock to get the parks Covid compliant as the crowd flooded back the minute they were admitted on June 15.
They advocated timed ticketing, visitor caps, outdoor grill restaurants, one-way streets, and large teams of toilet staff.
"The beauty of nature is so vital to life," says Caroline. “I love David Attenborough on TV. I love chair travel. But to be outside and around a giraffe – to see their black tongues, their extraordinary eyelashes. . . The psychological benefits are enormous. & # 39;
The management of the safari park was infinitely resourceful, considering how visitors can be safe and sell tickets.
Drew Mullin, managing director of Woburn's 330-acre park, told me that after "endless risk assessments" from November 12th through mid-term, they opted for drive-only safaris, notably adding five Grevi zebras and eight ostriches.
"We would have been willing to close everything except the toilets to stay open if necessary," he says.
They all assumed that after months of lobbying and praise from DEFRA and MPs for the measures they had taken, they would be on the “open” list.
& # 39; It doesn't make sense. You can drive anywhere – parks, cities, the countryside – but not here where you can see a tiger or a meerkat, ”says Edward.
& # 39; It's grossly unfair. They allowed garden centers to open, but not us! & # 39; says Dr. Redrobe.
Of course, not everyone loves safari parks and zoos – Redrobe believes Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith is not a fan. "I know he's an animal lover in some ways, but I don't think he's a zoo friend."
Inevitably, important maintenance work was compromised. Education and outreach programs – other vital aspects of zoos and safari parks – have again been suspended
But zoos are so much more than the visitor experience. Safari parks are part of the Frozen Ark, the main DNA bank for endangered animals – the safeguard plan to protect endangered species.
They are vital to international breeding, research and conservation programs, all of which are paid for by gate income.
Here at Knowsley, work goes way beyond a great day.
They help with global conservation efforts, protecting endangered species like the Amur tiger, the Bactrian camel in Mongolia and the Lord Derby Eland (a type of antelope), of which there are only 300 left on the planet.
In Woburn, conservationists are studying auditory communication between giraffes.
Twycross now has the largest primate and gibbon center in Europe and America, is at the heart of the international primate breeding program and supports endless conservation projects around the world.
Inevitably, important maintenance works were compromised. Education and outreach programs – other vital aspects of zoos and safari parks – have again been suspended.
"Education has been hit very hard here this year," says Drew Mullin of Woburn.
Which is another reason he's determined to have them reopen on December 2nd.
"We cannot be forgotten again, every day counts," says Mullin. "We have to be on the open list."
Not just because a morning whirling around on a five mile safari drive admiring the Grevy zebra and African lions roaming around in vast enclosures and mingling with other animals like in the wild is a fantastic addition to any visitor represents.
But much more important, because their survival is critical to protecting the animals and keeping these valuable DNA banks running for future generations.
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