Review: Sleeping with the Lions at London Zoo

PUBLISHED: 11:59 20 December 2018 | UPDATED: 12:07 20 December 2018

ZSL London Zoo Gir Lion lodges in the snow

ZSL London Zoo Gir Lion lodges in the snow

Archant

Bridget Galton and children spend a night at ZSL's Gir Lion Lodges and get to feed the tigers

ZSL London Zoo Gir Lion lodges in the snowZSL London Zoo Gir Lion lodges in the snow

It’s 7am, and my animal-mad son sits bolt upright in bed with a broad smile on his face.

“Mum did you hear the lions roaring?”

It was an oddly discombobulating sound to hear, because we weren’t in Africa, or even Gujarat, but on a damp cold November in Regent’s Park.

The early morning rumblings between London Zoo’s resident big cats Heidi, Rubi, Indi and Bhanu were part of our experience staying overnight in the Gir Lion Lodges.

ZSL London Zoo Gir Lion lodges in the snowZSL London Zoo Gir Lion lodges in the snow

And our wake-up call was very timely because we had to get up and feed the tigers.

For any child – or adult – who loves the natural world, ZSL’s behind the scenes experiences like the sleepover, are the most magical and educational gifts you could buy.

I’d busted my son out of school for the morning, but I warrant he learned more about his current topic of evolution in one evening than he would in a whole day in the classroom.

The previous evening we had gained privileged access to one of the zookeeper’s stores underneath the former elephant house, and prepared “enrichment” packages for a few of the animals.

ZSL London Zoo Gir Lion lodges in the snowZSL London Zoo Gir Lion lodges in the snow

Feeding grubs and moss stuffed into a half coconut to the mongoose next day, he learned that they are one of several species immune to snake venom, which allows them to fight and kill snakes.

We had also tossed old cereal boxes containing crickets to the nocturnal porcupines – who don’t usually appear for the Zoo’s daytime visitors.

And we’d watched a symbiotic relationship as a colony of leafcutter ants carried tiny fragments of foliage to feed a life-giving fungus.

That’s not to mention getting ridiculously close to the three Asiatic lionesses sleeping on a ‘hot rock’ in their enclosure and learning about the severity of their bite.

The trio of guides who looked after us on our three out of hours exclusive tours of the zoo were all animal mad.

From our arrival at 4pm to departure at 10 the next morning they were endlessly enthusiastic and patient with the children’s questions, with a fund of knowledge that must spring from answering all manner of queries.

The lodges themselves are cosy, warm and well equipped. Two single beds, a sofa bed with soft sheets and an adjoining shower room.

After settling in we were lucky on our night to have the added bonus of the new illuminated Christmas light trail, which traces a mile-long route around the site with colourful tunnels, fountains and music.

After dinner, we prepped the ‘enrichment’ which involved stuffing grubs down a stick for the usually shy Aye-aye lemur from Madagascar, who made a rare appearance in her darkened enclosure.

We also smeared a paste of spices onto sacking then stuffed them into cardboard boxes for the tigers.

Our morning started with tossing nuts to the bearded pigs on our way to a hearty breakfast, before feeding the penguins.

They bobbed and dived joyfully at the fistfuls of fish delivered by our party – my daughter was happy to grub around in the bottom of a fishy bucket to get the last scraps for the Humboldt penguin colony, who are so happy with the Penguin Beach set up at the zoo they are breeding very successfully.

Saying a quick hello to Jimmy the gibbon – surely the zoo’s most gregarious resident – we ended our morning at the tiger enclosure where our boxes were strung from the trees.

We watched as Jae Jae, Melati and their cubs made short work of hooking out the chicken wings and crunching them like matchsticks.

If it’s making memories you are after, our unusual sleepover ranks up there as one of the most special experiences for all three of us.

Both children were back at their school desks by 11am telling their disbelieving classmates they had slept with the lions and fed the tigers.

A stay at the Gir Lion Lodges costs £78 for two plus an extra £50 for each child and includes complimentary drink three exclusive after hours tours, a two course buffet dinner, breakfast, free parking and free Zoo entry.

Call 03442251826 or go to zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo/experiences

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