Shufai and Lope are just like any young, boisterous brothers — playing, climbing trees and banging as loudly and annoyingly as possible on a big, blue, plastic barrel.
They fight, make-up, enjoy the odd sniff at each other’s bottom, scratch their armpits and stay well out of father Oumbi’s way as that he enjoys a 28th birthday feast of red peppers and sliced aubergine.
They are only three and six years of age and look wonderfully cuddly, but are not. They are critically endangered western lowland gorillas and could rip your arm off super fast.
Likemba the bonobo is pictured above. It could be the only zoo in the UK with all four great apes — gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos
Their silverback dad, meanwhile — a 170kg muscle mountain of sinew and grizzled fur, with a massive, domed head and a neck as thick being an armchair — lumbers about their Leicestershire home such as a weightlifter, joyfully munching on his veg.
A few hundred yards away, inside their own £3.5 million enclosure, two chimps inside their late 20s, called Peter and William, sit crossed-legged and pick their noses. They scratch their heads and put their smooth, black hands against the glass to say hello.
They make eye contact, smile, stick their tongues out and laugh. Outside, Jahly, the Sumatran tiger who arrived to much fanfare from France last year, stretches and yawns and bares her teeth while, nearby, two baby orangutans, Basuki and Kayan, swing, jump and practise kissing on the lips.
All are either put at risk or critically endangered species and, along with a huge selection of other animals, are residents at Twycross Zoo in the Midlands.
Fortunately, as they begin their activities — eating, grooming or, in the case of Tim and Speedy, two of the zoo’s three Aldabra giant tortoises, trying to have sex extremely slowly and noisily (they bark loudly in the act) — they truly are blissfully unaware that their days might be numbered.
Earlier this week, Dr Sharon Redrobe, the zoo’s CEO, warned a parliamentary committee that when the Government didn’t part of to help cover the zoo’s reduced £650,000-a-month running costs through the coronavirus crisis, a mass animal cull — not merely here, however in other zoos and animal parks around the world — was a serious possibility.
Not — let’s be clear here — because she doesn’t care. But because she does, desperately.
‘We will not allow our animals to starve. We will not allow them to suffer. Culling would be the kindest and, if this came to pass, this is what we would do,’ she says.
‘It would be like euthanising your dog — find a vein and give them a really heavy dose of anaesthetic which they can’t keep coming back from. It would be awful. Unthinkable. Terrible.’
Cheeky: Basuki and Kayan, Twycross Zoo’s baby orangutans. It boasts the greatest primate and gibbon centre in Europe and America, is at the heart of the international primate breeding programme and supports endless conservation projects around the world
But, thanks to the ravages of Covid-19 on the zoo’s balance sheet, and the possible lack of proper governmental help, Dr Redrobe insists it is a real possibility.
Not just for Oumbi, his sons, their mum, Ozala, and the boys’ 46-year-old granny, Biddi. But also Brad and Setanta, the zoo’s 18 ft-tall giraffes; Nandi, the critically put at risk black rhino; the Sumatran tigers; the snow leopards; the herd of bitey, fighty zebras; the gibbons, whooping and calling from atop their 30 ft posts; the 27 Humboldt penguins; and the 14-strong chimpanzee community.
The zoo happens to be home to seven critically put at risk species, ten endangered species and 15 susceptible species. The list continues on and on.
Until recently, Twycross Zoo was a thriving and award-winning enterprise, with money in the financial institution and a long-term loan secured for a new £5 million, five-acre extension because of open next year.
It could be the only zoo in the UK with all four great apes — gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos. It boasts the greatest primate and gibbon centre in Europe and America, is at the heart of the international primate breeding programme and supports endless conservation projects around the world.
In normal times, it’s a flourishing business. It costs about £950,000 a month to operate, attracts a lot more than 650,000 visitors per year (including 60,000 school children — the highest number for any zoo other than London Zoo), features a turnover of £12 million generated nearly entirely by gate receipts and the gift shop, and is open every single day of the entire year bar Christmas Day.
But then came lockdown. On March 23, it closed to the public and Dr Redrobe immediately furloughed half the 173 staff — retaining a skeleton team in finance to cover the bills and all of the keepers.
‘You can’t furlough keepers as you can’t furlough a penguin. Or a tiger. They still need feeding, housing and looking after,’ she says.
Since then, they’ve done everything possible to keep the expenses down — halted all expansion plans, stopped breeding programmes, asked local people to donate branches from their garden for the giraffes to chomp on making use of their 34cm prehensile tongues and Ocado to donate their surplus.
Even closed, the monthly running cost of the zoo was still £650,000.
‘We can’t and won’t compromise on food or animal welfare, ever,’ says Dr Redrobe. But the foodstuff bill alone is astronomical — greater than a £25,000 a month — and deliveries arrive every single day from local vegetable suppliers, abattoirs and farms.
The troop of chimpanzees costs a lot more than £5,000 to take care of each month. The two critically endangered tigers will tear through £500 worth of fresh meat, and the penguins gobble down a lot more than 20kg of herrings, in addition to expensive supplements, every day.
Different beasts have different, complex needs. So the gorillas — ‘very dangerous animals who could rip you apart if you get it wrong’ — need trained and high priced keepers.
The penguins’ health uses very sophisticated filtration system, that is very expensive to keep up. And Brad and Setanta’s bedroom could be the size of an aircraft hangar, but it still needs to be heated to 25c throughout every season.
Despite all official breeding programmes having been halted, it isn’t always easy to stop animals doing what comes naturally, and putting them on contraception is costly and complicated.
‘Some of the chimps will take the pill, but many will need an implant, which requires an anaesthetic,’ says Dr Redrobe.
For some animals, temporary contraception could disrupt their ability to breed ever again. Others, such as the penguins, refuse to have their ardour dampened. ‘You can try not to breed them, but they’ve just snuck off and laid eggs down a burrow. They’re not likely to listen. They’re penguins!’
Indeed, down at their enclosure, keeper Maggie Millin, 41, proudly highlights two new, fat, fluffy chicks — called Clam and George — sunbathing without care on the rocks.
Maggie knows every one of her penguins well, from Pip, the eldest at 28 years old, to these new additions.
‘They are charismatic, sweet and funny and have very different personalities,’ she says.
Maggie has been dealing with penguins for 17 years. She spends every holiday visiting penguins in other zoos or in the wild and it has pictures of the animals all over her flat.
‘I really love them. How could you not? But I’m a keeper — we’re the same. I see them a lot more than my relatives and buddies — they truly are my relatives and buddies.’
The considered a culling is almost a lot of for her to take into account.
Senior primate keeper, James Lewis, 28, who has worked here for 14 years, feels the same.
Until recently, Twycross Zoo was a thriving and award-winning enterprise, with money in the financial institution and a long-term loan secured for a new £5 million, five-acre extension because of open next year
‘Just speaking about it is devastating,’ that he says. ‘They’re my life, I’m their custodian and I do want to do this job for as long as I’m physically capable. We’re here to look after them, we’re accountable for them. It’s very, very tough.’
Like James, lots of the keepers have already been here given that they joined as apprentices inside their teens. Several are now inside their 50s. But plenty of the animals have already been here far longer.
Coco the chimp has lived here for 51 of her 55 years. She was the fourth animal registered to the zoo after it was established by Molly Badham and Nathalie Evans in 1963 — but was not certainly one of Molly’s famous PG Tips chimps who, for decades, when no one appeared to know better, funded the zoo with advertising revenues from tea commercials.
Meanwhile, Dr Redrobe, who trained as a zoo vet and worked for decades as a primate conservationist in Cameroon before embracing the vital role zoos play in conservation, took over in 2010.
Under her leadership, the zoo has won grants, prizes and be a successful, ever-expanding, world-leading primate centre which works with umpteen universities each year.
But then came Covid, the finish of gate receipts (Zoos generate 40 per cent of the annual income in the Easter holidays alone) and their long-term loan was pulled.
Even given that they reopened to sell-out crowds on June 18, the figures haven’t added up because visitor numbers are limited to a third of the usual 10,000 daily tally. While there is now a Government help fund for income emergencies, the zoo qualifies for only £650,000 — a month’s outlay.
‘But we don’t want a crutch,’ says Dr Redrobe. ‘We’d rather have financing — ideally between £3 million and £5 million. We’re an effective business, we are able to pay it back. We just need to complete to Easter, but Defra keeps asking what our ‘shut down strategy’ is.’ So this week she told them — very bluntly — what her options could be.
‘We’d make the animals as comfortable as we could,’ says James, his eyes looking rather pink. ‘We’d do our most readily useful for them. That’s all we ever do.’ Dr Redrobe adds: ‘There’ll be a long list of boffins wanting all of the bits.’
The thought is appalling. Those vast, swaying giraffes making use of their huge, soppy eyes and 40kg heads put to sleep and chopped up for research purposes.
The rippling tigers. The enormous black rhino. The cheeky, flitting meerkats. Maggie’s beloved penguins. The singing gibbons — who mate for life and live for half a century. Or must do.
It seems so extreme. But Dr Redrobe insists that, without proper financial assistance, there is really no alternative.
What about all of the people jumping up and down this week saying the animals should go to the or that rescue centre?
‘There are no rescue centres for the animals we have here,’ says Dr Redrobe. ‘I would never let our animals go anywhere where they could not be looked after properly. We have the expertise and the space here. We are a world-leading facility. We should be rescuing animals from other zoos.’
When periodically a zoo fails, it tends to be small, with few dangerous or specialist animals. Which implies that other, larger zoos can usually just take them.
Now all of the zoos are struggling.
‘No one’s likely to say: “Ooh, we’ll take your gorillas. We’ll build a lovely new enclosure for them — it’ll only take 18 months.” There is not any time or money. There is nowhere for them to go.’
The prospect of the animals here losing their lives is bad enough, but the worldwide effect is catastrophic.
‘Once you’ve lost an put at risk species, you’ve lost them,’ says Dr Redrobe. ‘It’s in contrast to a restaurant. You can’t just make some more cakes and start again.
‘We are allowed to be the Ark, the back-up plan to protect the species being hunted to extinction in the wild.
‘Once the animals have been euthanised, they’ve gone. Which is excatly why I am screaming — very loudly — for help.’
So loudly that, in the great ape zone, the endangered bonobos — highly sexed and usually bouncing about like bonkers — already look unusually deflated and anxious.
They are, in the end, our closest living family relations — sharing 98.7 per cent of our DNA — sufficient reason for their pink lips, centre partings and dejected expressions, it’s almost as if they know what’s coming.