Captured Butterflies: Missing Otters

February 8, 2016

Continuing my accidental theme of Grand Days Out with Animals, this Sunday saw us test out Sheffield’s Number One Attraction according to TripAdvisor: The Tropical Butterfly House Wildlife and Falconry Centre.

You’ll probably have noticed that I’m easily enthralled by anything featuring animals. I wanted to be a vet for many years until an un-warned putting-down of a wonderful young, black Labrador as he snuggled up on my knee, put me off for life at the age of 15. Although I’ll probably never work with animals directly again (probably* – I’m still not sure!), any day out where funny furry creatures feature highly is a win in my book, so I had high hopes for the butterflies and other associated silly critters.

As it happens, the Tropical House was wonderful, but we probably didn’t get the best experience by visiting on a day when sleet and rain made any attempt at strolling around wildly unpleasant. Or, more importantly, on a day when the otters hid from us.

The Butterfly House

It’s £10 adult entry to the Butterfly House, which not only gets you a wander through the tropical enclosure and nocturnal walk, but also allows a stroll through Lemur Heights, a visit to the Meerkat Manor, falconry and parrot shows, otter talks and feeding, and visiting animals in the Farm Barn. That’s not too bad really, is it? If you’re willing to pay extra, you can also have a ‘VIP Experience’ with the owls, meerkats, lemurs, or snakes as well.

I normally have a bit of a problem with visiting zoos that house wild – as opposed to farm – animals. Despite the best efforts of the zookeepers and staff, the inmates are rarely as happy as they would be in the wild, and I can’t help but think that in 2016 at least, we should all have got past the typical human selfishness of needing to see exotic creatures in the flesh.

We have televisions and all manner of international travel options nowadays, and although there’s a lot to be said for allowing children from less affluent backgrounds to experience incredible animals up close, I think there’s probably even more to be said for showing mercy and respect towards the other living things we share the planet with. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see that the animals housed here had a great deal of free space to roam about in, and that they seemed well cared for and engaged with their surroundings – for the most part.

Since it was a typical Peak District winter day (rainy and windy and cold, that is) we headed straight to the artificially heated Tropical House, and honestly this far surpassed my expectations. The enclosure is spacious, filled with all manor of tropical plants and trees, and exotic birds fly freely over visitors’ heads alongside a huge array of brightly-coloured butterflies.

One of the many exotic birds

One of the many exotic birds

Walking around and seeing visitors calmly obeying the signs entreating us not to feed the birds – since allowing them to become too tame would do more harm than good – it didn’t feel for a second as though these animals were captive. And, contrary to my previous argument, it was honestly a privilege to see them behaving as they would naturally in the wild and swooping down so close to our heads without any fear.

Exploring the Farm Barn

It would be easy to get caught up in the more exotic creatures housed here, but as I’ve said many times before, feeding the farm animals is still exciting for me even as an adult. Rather than gentle alpacas this time though, we encountered turkeys, geese, chickens, peacocks, and a number of bolshie goats who simply wouldn’t share nicely!

Making goat friends

Making goat friends

They are funny though, aren’t they?

The Wilder Ones

Among the park’s more exotic mammals are the lemurs, meerkats and otters, and I think it’s fair to say that they are the main attractions. Even so, they were also the only inhabitants that made me feel a little bit uneasy about the whole enterprise. Although all of the meerkats and lemurs were engaged and interacted with each other, their environment, and with us, it’s always a shame to see such clearly wild animals kept occupied with cages and glass enclosures.

They were, again, obviously well looked after and I won’t go so far as to say I wasn’t excited to see them – because I’m not a Saint, after all – but watching the lemurs in particular made my stomach feel a little uncomfortable. No matter how well cared for they are, they’re not really meant to be in Sheffield, are they?

Meerkat Family

Meerkat Family

Similarly, I was really surprised to discover that the only otter breed they housed was the Asian small-clawed otter, when there are plenty of other breeds far more used to dealing with lower temperatures than these ones from hotter climates. As a result, the only glimpse we had of the otters was through a small window, where what looked like two of them appeared to be play-fighting in the straw nestled firmly under a heat lamp. There might be some very persuasive reasons why this breed has been housed over others, but I didn’t see any explanation while we were there.

Overall, the highlights of the visit were the Tropical House itself and the flying show, where two young macaws soared freely around the park and their handlers took part in an educational talk to the gathered adults and children.

The centre itself takes part in a lot of fundraising for animals around the world, and the people we encountered working there seemed to know and care a great deal about all of the different species they looked after. Even so, it wasn’t exactly a guilt-free visit. Although we all had a good time I think in future I’ll be sticking to farm animals, or extending my wildlife visits only to sanctuaries, in pursuit of a fully guilt-free trip!

Next Week: Finding my Golden Ticket in London

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