A handful of north animal lovers were able to take a walk on the wild side as they got out of the house for some lockdown exercise today.
While most Scottish residents have to content themselves with a stroll around their local park when they want a bit of fresh air, people in the Kingussie area have been able to book in visits to see tigers, polar bears and wildcats as of this morning.
The reopening of Highland Wildlife Park has been hailed as a small step on the road back to normality amid the easing of lockdown restrictions.
And it couldn’t come a second too soon for bosses who had feared for its future after going without guests for months last year – and then again since Christmas.
As they announced the return of the attraction, management stressed that people must not travel from outside the local authority area, or gather in groups of more than two households with more than four adults, as they attended.
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which operates the park and Edinburgh Zoo, had previously raised fears that both sites could never reopen as a result of the income lost during lockdown.
Despite the cold weather, the steady streams of visitors beamed as they relished taking part in the sort of exciting outing many of us took for granted not long ago.
They got to encounter some wildcats, which are part of a major project to save the species, at close quarters on their trip around the Kincraig site.
Meanwhile, other animals from further afield such as the Amur Tigers and polar bears also proved popular.
As well as having limited visitor numbers, there has been frequent cleaning in high contact areas and additional hygiene precautions, along with extra hand-washing and hand sanitiser stations around the park.
One-way routes have been introduced in some areas so different households can stay 2m apart, all keeper talks have been postponed to avoid crowds, visitors are being encouraged to wear masks and the park cafes are opening only for takeaway services with card payments.
Highland Wildlife Park reopened
David Field, chief executive of the RZSS, said: “It is amazing to be able to welcome our wonderful visitors back to Highland Wildlife Park.
“We know so many people have missed being able to visit and enjoy our wide open spaces and amazing animals.
“Safety comes first and there are a wide range of added measures in place to protect our guests, staff and animals.”
During the closure, the RZSS has received more than £400,000 in donations from supporters to help stay afloat.
This came after the charity revealed it had to borrow £5 million since lockdown forced the closure of both facilities and cut off their income streams.
Mr Field hailed the “generous” public for helping the charity feed the animals at the north park – which costs more than £600 every day – and for helping management to cope with the monthly bills of almost £700,000.
He added: “The support our charity has received over the past year has been incredible and every donation, membership, purchase in our shop and more has helped to feed and care for our animals and protect threatened species in Scotland around the world.
“It’s almost as if people have fallen in love again with the park.
“It’s reignited a real passion for what they can offer as well as the projects that we do.
“I think the love that has been shown for the Highland Wildlife Park is just going to grow and I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of people.
“Every £1 counts for us at this point because the more funds and income we can generate now, the less borrowings we have to have.
“If we can reduce our borrowing in total by the end of the year then it means we can start reinvesting in the park, the zoo and our conservation programmes.
“I just feel we can get that money over the years because over these past three months we have had so much support for the park, the zoo and the zoological society itself.”