Lions and tigers and bears, oh yes

Saturday saw us belatedly celebrating Beloved Other Half's birthday with a trip to Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, which I must surely have visited as a child, if only I could remember. Won't forget today in a hurry, though.

The night before, I'd read through pretty much all of my 2003 entries in this journal – comments too – and been saddened by how different I feel now from how I was then. The 2003 me seemed more carefree, quicker to joke and laugh, more likely to just bash out a couple of quick paragraphs as an entry without worrying too much about it – better company, probably, and definitely someone on whose shoulders the weight of the world sat less heavily.

Well, should you find yourself in a similar position, I can suggest a visit to see penguins, bears, rhinocerii, giraffes and infinite numbers of free-roaming wallabies as a powerful antidote.

It's impossible to pick a high point of the day, as each new thing seemed to top the last one.

A low-key start saw the bear enclosure apparently empty – we speculated they might have, very sensibly, packed it in for winter – and the penguins at the penguin pool sat stoically, doing nothing much at all. But even sedentary penguins are a fine sight on a cold Saturday, and we spent the longest time watching them as they mooched around, occasionally peering quizzically back at us.

From then on, new and exciting things piled up rapidly, despite the growing inconvenience of walking on what I'm now absolutely certain is, after all, a broken foot.

I'm searching for the right words to describe what it's like to see these exotic creatures so close – often just a couple of feet away across a fence and ditch – and what strikes me now is that, for a lot of the animals, it was remarkably like watching English farm animals with a surreal twist. For example, the zebras – and, to an extent, the giraffes – behaved and looked like horses in their fields and stables. Except one set had a Photoshop filter of stripes applied and the other lot had preposterously long necks and patchwork hides that Beloved Other Half described as looking like moth eaten old sofas.

Nowhere, for me, was this more marked than at the rhinoceros enclosure, a vast open grass space with a stable building in one corner. The rhinos formed a herd – males, females and a few young ones – and they wandered around the enclosure very much like domestic cattle, even ending the day all standing in a row in the lee of their building, catching the last of the sun. The very English setting enhanced this feeling, of course, as did our experience strolling through countless cattle herds when walking on the South West Coast path, and other walks. But never have we walked through a herd where the animals were van-sized blocks of dark concrete on legs, with little beady eyes and horns like siege weapons.

Not everything looked so homely, of course – the hippos in their pool, the families of elephants eating their high tea in the elephant house, the ludicrous pink flamingos, they all felt more like traditional zoo attractions, packaged for attention-challenged visitors and their Ritalin-deprived offspring.

And then there were the predators – wolves, lions and tigers.

Of them, the lions seemed least threatening. They lay placidly, watching us watch them, until eventually the female got up and wandered over to check on the cubs. The cubs – quite large now – responded by jumping on her, practicing how to take down prey. She calmly endured their antics for a few minutes until they got bored and everyone settled down again. They looked as dangerous as a family on holiday by the pool. Only the thick safety glass we were watching them through suggested otherwise.

By contrast, the wolf pack was scary in a way that probably harks back to some long-buried ancestral memory of when humans weren't quite so secure in their mastery of the world. Like the lions, they barely moved. In their case, however, their stillness looked like a pause before a full-scale pack pursuit of some hapless tourist. A few ears flicked, a few heads turned, and three wolves stood as sentries, permanently alert and poised for action.

The tigers were a higher level of threat still, having seemingly developed the ability to silently teleport. For quite some time as we stared into the enclosure we thought there was only one, lying in the middle surveying its domain. Then I looked up to see a man walking along the outside of the fence towards us. He was about 12 feet away when I heard him. With a feeling of complete shock I suddenly realised he was walking to keep pace with a tiger patrolling the inside of the fence. If it hadn't been for the relatively noisy person, that tiger would have been literally under our noses before we saw it. And, a minute or two later, as we watched the patrolling animal recede, we suddenly noticed a third, standing hidden in full view. It was a frightening thought, to imagine being suddenly inside the enclosure and watching the first tiger as you planned your escape, while two others were out there, unnoticed and able to be on top of you before you were aware of their very existence.

On the other hand, not every dangerous animal looks dangerous. After a flask of hot soup, we made a second attempt to see the bears – and this time we were successful. Large brown bears are, of course, highly dangerous creatures. But it's very difficult to remember that when you're watching one carefully climb a tree that seems far too small to hold its weight, a look of intense and slightly nervous concentration on its furry face. The ease with which this enormous animal scaled the trunk was something of an eye-opener but, as it sat at the top munching berries, we wondered how it was going to get down again. And we wondered just how safe was the other bear, sitting under the tree in apparent blissful ignorance of the heavy weight that was bulging out in all directions from the unfortunate tree-top, five feet above its head. We'd have liked to hang around to find out, but it was cold and time was short.

In the end, we didn't see everything. To our disappointment, we missed the llamas and the lemurs, and saw little of the camels – just a row of them in the distance. Tickets are pricey, too, so we'll not be popping up again just to fill in the gaps. But after a while, when the memory has faded a little and needs refreshing, and when the world is a little too heavy again, we'll be back.