Dubai: How would you like to get really up close and personal with animals? Do you want to feed a rhino, pet an elephant, laugh with a giraffe, clutch a two-metre long boa constrictor, play with a chameleon and learn about animal anatomy?
Dubai Safari Park, home to over 2,600 animals of over 250 species, has recently launched a unique experience called ‘Behind-the-Scenes Tour’, allowing visitors to explore the zoo like an animal caretaker. The package – priced at Dh1,200 and good for a maximum of 10 people per tour – will give the group an exclusive access to staff areas.
“This private guided tour takes guests to the back of animal housing areas in a private open-air vehicle, where they will have the opportunity to encounter various animal and do enrichment activities along the way,” according to Dubai Safari.
Animal keeper for a day
Last week, Gulf News was given the 90-minute tour that brought us to areas normally reserved for the zoo-keepers. The tour had six stops, including a visit to the veterinary clinic, reptile house, rhino pen, elephant enclosure, giraffe house and an interaction with the show team trainers.
Callum Chase, one of the Dubai Safari guides, walked us through the tour and gave us insights into the animal life. He also explained animal behaviour such as how animals interact socially and how they adapt with their environment.
‘Moody chameleon and cuddly snake’
First, we entered the Reptile House, where we met Evie, the “moody” chameleon, and George, the “sweet and cuddly” snake. Chase said chameleons actually change their colours not based on their environment but on their mood. Evie, at first, turned light brown – meaning she was a bit upset - but eventually turned green, which meant she had settled down. Part of the Behind-the-Scenes Tour was feeding Evie with live roaches for breakfast.
Then, we cuddled George, a non-venomous two-metre red-tailed boa constrictor. George is ectothermic - a cold-blooded animal whose regulation of body temperature depends on external sources like sunlight or heated surface. Humans are warm-blooded and this is the reason why snakes in captivity like George love to “coil themselves in the arms of humans”. The scales of George are like marble-polished glass.
One of the stars at the Duba Safari is Imara, a female Southern African giraffe born in the UAE. Together with her friend, Yala, and another female reticulated giraffe (with its brown and white, brick-like pattern), we fed the trio with freshly-cut carrots and lettuce.
Giraffes are ruminants, meaning they digest food like cows and they have four-chamber stomachs. They are also the tallest land animal in the world, with an average height of five metres or around 16 feet. One will definitely be awed by their size as they stoop down, with their 18 to 20-inch long tongue, to grab the treat right from one’s hand.
Next stop was the Rhino enrichment area, where we met Nova (male rhino) and Hannah (female). Dubai Safari Park has a total of five rhinos – one male (Nova) and four females (Hannah, Olive, stumpy and Heidi).
“The rhinos are absolute sweethearts,” said Chase, adding: “Rhino horns are not made of bone, but of keratin – the same material like human hair and fingernails. This is why a rhino’s horn is not attached to its skull because it is actually a compacted mass of hairs that grow throughout its lifetime, just like human hair and nails.”
The rhinos were fed with hay and straw but what they liked most was getting a rub behind their ears with a brush. Chase also said they would like one day to have the rhinos breed in captivity.
After the close encounter with rhinoceros, we met the bigger pachyderms (thick-skinned animals) – the elephants.
There are four elephants (one male and three females) at Dubai Safari and the popular ones are Matiba and Zulu.
Coming face-to-face with the elegant elephants was not only a fantastic photo opportunity for a post on Facebook, Tiktok or Instagram, but the chance to hand-feed Matiba and Zulu also provided an enriching chance to learn more about the favourite animals at the zoo.
The interaction was also an educational one to enlighten visitors about animal protection and conservation – that elephants and rhinoceros should not fall prey to big-game hunting.
The visit to the veterinary hospital was also very enriching. Chase, who studied animal behaviour for five years at a university, said caretakers take note of animal actions daily. “If a gazelle, for example, looks lame and lethargic – that is a sign that something is wrong with the animal. Caretakers will observe the gazelle and if the behaviour or condition gets worse, then the animal is brought in to the veterinary hospital.”
When we visited the animal hospital, we were also shown an African lion’s skull, fossil of a Barbary sheep’s horn, a Nile crocodile’s skull and skin, a Black buck’s horn, and a complete set of lion’s long and sharp teeth.
Chase also explained how animals are given medicines and how they are carefully transported from the enclosures to the hospital for surgery or treatment.
There is an animal ward – just like a regular human hospital ward – where recovering animals stay before they are released back to their compound.
The special tour was not only an interaction with the animals but we also connected with the show team trainers.
Filipino expat Mark Nieves, an animal trainer, gave a lowdown on how show animals are trained. He said the safari is not a circus so animals are not taught tricks but they are trained, based on their natural behaviours.
“This means, we never force animals to do what we want but we adjust to what they want to do, with the help our training tools,” Nieves explained, as he gave peanuts as a reward to Pancho, a green-winged macaw, for following his instructions to fly from one person to another.
Chase added training animals is a form of enrichment and animal brain stimulation as they learn to adapt to their environment.
Overall, the Behind-the-Scenes tour was both rewarding and enriching. All animal encounters were conducted in a protected -contact situation, and more importantly, the guide provided colourful insights and commentaries on animal life.
Dubai Safari Park is open from 9am to 5pm daily. Online booking is highly recommended.