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We’ve all watched videos of people going round zoos. Wait… you haven’t? Well, I have, and I can tell you that they are nothing like a live zoo tour!

For my 30th birthday my wife organised a Zoom tour of Edinburgh zoo. For the uninitiated, this is basically where a keeper or guide takes you around the zoo on an iPad via the magic of video conferencing. You get to visit the animals you want to see while the keeper gives you a tailored talk on the zoo’s history, the animals, the zoo mechanics.

I’ll say upfront that this is going to be a very glowing review… I had a great time and all my friends and family (there were 19 of us) loved it too.

The animals

The 45 min session started off with Barry (a zoo guide and our host) logging on a little early to test the connection. This gave us a little time to say hello and get to know his friend Poe. Poe is a Crow who likes peanuts and basically acts as Barry’s co-presenter. I don’t want to spoil this for anyone else out there but if you are in Edinburgh zoo and you see Barry then you should ask him about Poe. Poe is great.

We started off in true Edinburgh Zoo fashion… with the Giant Pandas. Barry got us a great view into the panda house and gave us a really interesting 5-minute talk on the giant pandas. Did you know pandas eat 100kg a day and poo 50-60 times? That is a lot of grass going in and a lot of grass coming out! While most of us might think pandas are a waste of space, they actually have a vital place in the ecosystem of bamboo forests fertilising the ground and clearing the grass.

Giant Panda. Credit: Edinburgh Zoo

I like to think I know a fair bit about zoo animals but through out the entire hour Barry told me loads of things I hadn’t thought of or didn’t know. Pretty much every factoid in this review is a gem from Barry.

We then moved on from pandas to the Scottish Wildcat. I’d specifically asked to see this elusive species as we hadn’t seen it on our last trip to Edinburgh a few years ago and I’m a huge fan of small cats. Barry found it for us in the tree and right on cue it gave its head a little shake so we could all see it. When I was there, I didn’t think to look up! Interesting fact… there is a movement to breed the Scottish wildcat with the European wildcat to introduce more wildcat genes back into Scotland.

From small cats to big cats, we then went on to see the Tigers. First of all, we thought it was going to be a poor showing with just a distant view of the head however Barry knew exactly where we’d get the best view and of course he was right. The tiger enclosure includes a hot rock kept at a constant 38 degrees and, as you’d expect, there was a tiger lounging around on it.

Sumatran Tiger. Credit: Edinburgh Zoo

I’m not going to go on and give a blow-by-blow account but on our ‘visit’ we then went on to see the Gelada Baboons, Lions, Visayan Warty Pigs, an ugly goat Chinese Goral, Banteng, Cassowary, the new giraffes, Egyptian Vultures and a Red Panda. Considering we had less than an hour I think this is an impressive set of species to rack up!

Cassorary. Credit: Edinburgh Zoo

Some fun facts

It wasn’t just running from A to B to rack up numbers though. Throughout the entire time Barry kept us entertained with zoo trivia (throwing in a bit of a zoo quiz) and zoo history.

A particular highlight for me, with my zoo nerd hat on, was when Barry explained to us that the new giraffe enclosure (opening on the 14th of June) has 5 young bachelors. This is to ‘test’ the enclosure so that, if any amendments need to be made, they won’t be disturbing pregnant females. In a few years when everyone is happy, they’ll move on the adolescent men to other zoos and bring in some females.

Giraffes coming to Edinburgh Zoo. Credit: Edinburgh Zoo

Another good zoo nerd fact was that the lions are currently having to be separated because they have reached sexual maturity but Covid regulations mean they can’t be moved onto another zoo yet. An unexpected consequence of the pandemic.

Did you know that Gelada baboons are the only primate which can touch the tips of all four fingers with their thumbs (aside from humans)? They have a diet of grass and the extra dexterity is needed to sort out the different strands of grass species.

Gelada baboons. Credit: Edinburgh Zoo

The technology

The technology held up remarkably well. We did have a 2 or 3-minute period where we lost connection (blame the tigers) but considering Barry was walking over the entire zoo with an iPad, it held up remarkably well.

The sound was clear throughout the visit. It looked like the sound was largely done through Bluetooth earphones but there was very little wind noise and the occasionally visitor noise only added to the atmosphere.

The video was very clear and the zooming on the video worked impressively well. This was essential for the Gelada baboons and lions which were a little far away. I might suggest that Edinburgh Zoo invest in a cheap stabiliser for a less shaky view when walking between enclosures but that would just be icing on an already delicious cake.

The magic sauce

You might guess though what really made this whole thing work… Barry our guide. I’ve now mentioned his name 12 times and it still doesn’t feel like enough. His friendly persona put us all at our ease and his knowledge of the zoo and the animals was extensive. When you realise he is watching an ipad, telling us facts, spotting animals, planning the next segment and walking around visitors all at the same time you can’t help but be impressed.

The idea of virtual zoo visits is one I’d expect to be more widespread, but I think Edinburgh are the only place which do it. It’s a shame as I found it was a fantastic way to connect with my family and friends all over the country doing something unusual and fun. Thanks Barry and thanks Edinburgh zoo for a very memorable 30th birthday!

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