Published Date: 04 January 2010
By JANET CHRISTIE
If you go down to the zoo today be sure you're wrapped in a warm, furry coat. And even then you might find Corstophine Hill a little on the chilly side, rather like the animals, a substantial number of whom had retreated into their nests, burrows, pens and generally cosy places when we visited.
The painted hunting dogs dozed deep among the hay, dreaming of the dog days of summer on the plains of their African homeland, the gibbons curled tight around each other like a two-for-one scarf offer in the sales and the flamingos were just a pink blush of a memory, nowhere to be seen.
Which left centre stage to the penguins, who couldn't have been happier with the cold snap. They puffed out their chests, waddled up to meet any visitors, proudly showed off their fluffy King Penguin baby, the first at the zoo in five years, flapped along to the end of their diving board and took turns to do a will-I-won't-I routine, then flopped into the icy water and performed underwater aerobatics with an exhilaration we've never seen them display in summer. They were looping the loop and kicking their height with delight, loving every minute. We could have watched them all day, if we hadn't lost the feeling in our feet and fingers after half an hour and retreated to the monkey house where a warm welcome awaited us.
Cheeky little monkeys of various varieties performed on the ropes and beautiful big Drills, with Cheryl Cole cheekbones and a steady gaze held ours. "They look sad," said my daughter, aged six (pictured left). But with so few left in just a tiny area of the Congo, they're a perfect example of the argument for keeping animals in captivity in order to protect the species, and to engage in conservation and research. That can also be said of the pygmy hippos whose pen we visited next to see the baby born this summer. With so few people visiting the zoo, now is the perfect time to engage the keepers in conversation and we heard of their excitement when the newborn hippo was found in the pen, and that they're one of only two breeding pairs in the UK.
Back out on the hill, by the time we'd reached the place where the big cats live I was ready to climb in beside the tigers and leopards for a cuddle but, after a quick count of spots and stripes, we headed instead for the Budongo Trail, where Edinburgh Zoo's chimps hang out in their new state-of-the-art home. As we thawed and watched their antics, we also learnt a bit about the Royal Zoological Society's work with chimps in Uganda and then before we knew it, it was chucking out time. It had happened again – time had been gobbled up like a croc chewing on a wildebeest and we hadn't seen half of the animals we'd intended to visit and we left, saying as always: "We'll be back."
Edinburgh Zoo, 134 Corstorphine Road, Edinburgh, EH12 6TS, 0131-334 9171, www.edinburghzoo.org.uk, open every day, November to February 9am to 4.30pm, tickets adults £14, children 3-15, £9.50, under threes free, concession £12, family tickets from £29.
• This article first appeared in the Scotsman on Saturday 2 January, 2010