I fed the bears at Hamerton Zoo!

I’m a huge animal lover, perhaps bears the most of all. Maybe it’s because, growing up, some of my favourite fictional characters were bears, from Winnie-the-Pooh to Paddington, Rupert to Bungle. Baloo. There’s something very comforting about them. Very familiar. Perhaps the main character in my next book could be a bear…

I’ve been visiting Hamerton Zoo Park since they first opened to the public and have seen how much they care, watched the conservation work they do, observed how they’ve grown over the past thirty years. I was super excited last January when they announced the arrival of 3 young bear cubs as part of a global project to restablish Syrian bears which are sadly extinct in Syria. As soon as lockdown restrictions lifted I went to visit them, admiring them from afar, thinking it was the closest I’d ever get. I was wrong.

For my birthday my husband, Tim, surprised me with a ‘feed the bear’ experience. And a few days ago we excitedly set off to do just that.

We were met by one of the bear keepers who led us through some locked gates, into the bear enclosure. At the first site of Laiko, Jaiko and Newton I was so overwhelmed I found myself close to tears. They were so adorable. So near I could reach out and touch them (I was told not to reach out and touch them).

For the first part of our adventure we loaded spoons with honey and peanut butter and let the bears lick it off. Now, I hand feed my cat sometimes and he is ferocious around food. With him, I worry I’ll lose a finger. Not with Laiko, Jaiko and Newton who sat patiently waiting for their turn. They were SO gentle. I accidentally dribbled honey onto the bars and they each licked it off, sharing it equally. The bond between these siblings is so touching.

Next, we were taken into the shed to choose some props for their enrichment. We picked some barrels and boxes. We filled the barrels with their favourite foods – nut, seeds, oranges, avocados and apples, with some dog biscuits for protein (apparently they also eat meat once a week and fish twice a week). We sealed the lids on the barrels, loaded everything into a wheelbarrow and then took it all into their main enclosure. We positioned the barrels near the fence so the waiting crowd would be able to see the bears close up. it felt a little odd and unsettling to be on the wrong side of the fence. The keepers told us that most of the animals enjoy watching the humans and were pleased when the park reopened after lockdown. Apparently we are just as entertaining to them.

After we’d laid out the barrels and boxes we walked around their enclosure and hid fruit and nuts behind trees and on top of lower branches so they had something to seek out. Then it was time for us to step out and the bears to have their lunch.

For the last part of our experience we were allowed to stand in front of the safety barrier so we could position our cameras to take photos without the bars in the way. It was joyful to observe them getting the lids off the barrels and enjoying eating. Playing.

All too soon it was time to say goodbye. After we’d left I had a little cry. I felt so privileged to have been able to get so close to my favourite animals. It was one of the best things I’d ever done and I’ll definitely go back to do it again. I’m even considering featuring a zoo and a keeper in my next book so I can keep returning for ‘research’ purposes…

Find out more about Hamerton here.