Shufai and Lope are just like any young, boisterous brothers — playing, climbing trees and banging as loudly and annoyingly as possible on a big, blue, plastic barrel.
They fight, make up, enjoy the odd sniff at each other’s bottom, scratch their armpits and stay well out of father Oumbi’s way as he enjoys a 28th birthday feast of red peppers and sliced aubergine.
They are just three and six years old and look wonderfully cuddly, but are not. They are critically endangered western lowland gorillas and could rip your arm off in a flash.
Likemba the bonobo is pictured above. It is the only zoo in the UK with all four great apes — gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos
Their silverback dad, meanwhile — a 170kg muscle mountain of sinew and grizzled fur, with a vast, domed head and a neck as thick as an armchair — lumbers about their Leicestershire home like a weightlifter, happily munching on his veg.
A few hundred yards away, in their own £3.5 million enclosure, two chimps in their late 20s, called Peter and William, sit crossed-legged and pick their noses. They scratch their heads and put their smooth, black hands against the glass to say hello.
They make eye contact, smile, stick their tongues out and laugh. Outside, Jahly, the Sumatran tiger who arrived to much fanfare from France last year, stretches and yawns and bares her teeth while, nearby, two baby orangutans, Basuki and Kayan, swing, jump and practise kissing on the lips.
All are either endangered or critically endangered species and, along with hundreds of other animals, are residents at Twycross Zoo in the Midlands.
Fortunately, as they go about their daily activities — eating, grooming or, in the case of Tim and Speedy, two of the zoo’s three Aldabra giant tortoises, trying to make love extremely slowly and noisily (they bark loudly in the act) — they are blissfully unaware that their days could be numbered.
Earlier this week, Dr Sharon Redrobe, the zoo’s CEO, warned a parliamentary committee that if the Government didn’t step in to help cover the zoo’s reduced £650,000-a-month running costs during the coronavirus crisis, a mass animal cull — not only here, but in other zoos and animal parks across the country — was a serious possibility.
Not — let’s be very clear here — because she doesn’t care. But because she does, desperately.
‘We will not allow our animals to starve. We will not allow them to suffer. Culling would be the kindest and, if this came to pass, this is what we would do,’ she says.
‘It would be like euthanising your dog — find a vein and give them a really heavy dose of anaesthetic which they can’t come back from. It would be awful. Unthinkable. Terrible.’
Cheeky: Basuki and Kayan, Twycross Zoo’s baby orangutans. It boasts the biggest primate and gibbon centre in Europe and America, is at the heart of the international primate breeding programme and supports endless conservation projects around the world
But, thanks to the ravages of Covid-19 on the zoo’s balance sheet, and the lack of proper governmental help, Dr Redrobe insists it is a real possibility.
Not only for Oumbi, his sons, their mum, Ozala, and the boys’ 46-year-old granny, Biddi. But also Brad and Setanta, the zoo’s 18 ft-tall giraffes; Nandi, the critically endangered black rhino; the Sumatran tigers; the snow leopards; the herd of bitey, fighty zebras; the gibbons, whooping and calling from atop their 30 ft posts; the 27 Humboldt penguins; and the 14-strong chimpanzee community.
The zoo is currently home to seven critically endangered species, ten endangered species and 15 vulnerable species. The list goes on and on.
Until recently, Twycross Zoo was a thriving and award-winning enterprise, with money in the bank and a long-term loan secured for a new £5 million, five-acre extension due to open next year.
It is the only zoo in the UK with all four great apes — gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos. It boasts the biggest primate and gibbon centre in Europe and America, is at the heart of the international primate breeding programme and supports endless conservation projects around the world.
In normal times, it’s a flourishing business. It costs about £950,000 a month to run, attracts more than 650,000 visitors a year (including 60,000 school children — the highest number for any zoo other than London Zoo), has a turnover of £12 million generated almost entirely by gate receipts and the gift shop, and is open every day of the year bar Christmas Day.
But then came lockdown. On March 23, it closed to the public and Dr Redrobe immediately furloughed half the 173 staff — retaining a skeleton team in finance to pay the bills and all the keepers.
‘You can’t furlough keepers because you can’t furlough a penguin. Or a tiger. They still need feeding, housing and caring for,’ she says.
Since then, they’ve done everything possible to keep the costs down — halted all expansion plans, stopped breeding programmes, asked local people to donate branches from their garden for the giraffes to chomp on with their 34cm prehensile tongues and Ocado to donate their surplus.
Even closed, the monthly running cost of the zoo was still £650,000.
‘We can’t and won’t compromise on food or animal welfare, ever,’ says Dr Redrobe. But the food bill alone is astronomical — more than a £25,000 a month — and deliveries arrive every day from local vegetable suppliers, abattoirs and farms.
The troop of chimpanzees costs more than £5,000 to care for each month. The two critically endangered tigers will tear through £500 worth of fresh meat, and the penguins gobble down more than 20kg of herrings, as well as expensive supplements, every day.
Different beasts have different, complex needs. So the gorillas — ‘very dangerous animals who could rip you apart if you get it wrong’ — need highly trained and costly keepers.
The penguins’ health relies on a very sophisticated filtration system, which is very expensive to maintain. And Brad and Setanta’s bedroom might be the size of an aircraft hangar, but it still needs to be heated to 25c all year round.
Despite all official breeding programmes having been halted, it isn’t always easy to stop animals doing what comes naturally, and putting them on contraception is expensive and complicated.
‘Some of the chimps will take the pill, but many will need an implant, which requires an anaesthetic,’ says Dr Redrobe.
For some animals, temporary contraception could disrupt their ability to breed ever again. Others, such as the penguins, refuse to have their ardour dampened. ‘You can try not to breed them, but they’ve just snuck off and laid eggs down a burrow. They’re not going to listen. They’re penguins!’
Indeed, down at their enclosure, keeper Maggie Millin, 41, proudly points out two new, fat, fluffy chicks — called Clam and George — sunbathing without care on the rocks.
Maggie knows every one of her penguins well, from Pip, the eldest at 28 years old, to these new additions.
‘They are charismatic, sweet and funny and have very different personalities,’ she says.
Maggie has been working with penguins for 17 years. She spends every holiday visiting penguins in other zoos or in the wild and has pictures of the animals all over her flat.
‘I really love them. How could you not? But I’m a keeper — we’re all the same. I see them more than my friends and family — they are my friends and family.’
The thought of a culling is almost too much for her to consider.
Senior primate keeper, James Lewis, 28, who has worked here for 14 years, feels the same.
Until recently, Twycross Zoo was a thriving and award-winning enterprise, with money in the bank and a long-term loan secured for a new £5 million, five-acre extension due to open next year
‘Just speaking about it is devastating,’ he says. ‘They’re my life, I’m their custodian and I want to do this job for as long as I’m physically capable. We’re here to look after them, we’re responsible for them. It’s very, very tough.’
Like James, many of the keepers have been here since they joined as apprentices in their teens. Several are now in their 50s. But plenty of the animals have been here far longer.
Coco the chimp has lived here for 51 of her 55 years. She was the fourth animal registered to the zoo after it was established by Molly Badham and Nathalie Evans in 1963 — but was not one of Molly’s famous PG Tips chimps who, for decades, when no one seemed to know better, funded the zoo with advertising revenues from tea commercials.
Meanwhile, Dr Redrobe, who trained as a zoo vet and worked for years as a primate conservationist in Cameroon before embracing the vital role zoos play in conservation, took over in 2010.
Under her leadership, the zoo has won grants, prizes and become a successful, ever-expanding, world-leading primate centre which works with umpteen universities every year.
But then came Covid, the end of gate receipts (Zoos generate 40 per cent of their annual income in the Easter holidays alone) and their long-term loan was pulled.
Even since they reopened to sell-out crowds on June 18, the figures haven’t added up because visitor numbers are limited to a third of the usual 10,000 daily tally. While there is now a Government help fund for cash flow emergencies, the zoo qualifies for only £650,000 — a month’s outlay.
‘But we don’t want a crutch,’ says Dr Redrobe. ‘We’d rather have a loan — ideally between £3 million and £5 million. We’re a successful business, we can pay it back. We just need to get through to Easter, but Defra keeps asking what our ‘shut down strategy’ is.’ So this week she told them — very bluntly — what her options could be.
‘We’d make the animals as comfortable as we could,’ says James, his eyes looking rather pink. ‘We’d do our best for them. That’s all we ever do.’ Dr Redrobe adds: ‘There’ll be a long list of scientists wanting all the bits.’
The thought is appalling. Those vast, swaying giraffes with their huge, soppy eyes and 40kg heads put to sleep and chopped up for research purposes.
The rippling tigers. The enormous black rhino. The cheeky, flitting meerkats. Maggie’s beloved penguins. The singing gibbons — who mate for life and live for half a century. Or should do.
It seems so extreme. But Dr Redrobe insists that, without proper financial assistance, there really is no alternative.
What about all the people jumping up and down this week saying the animals should go to this or that rescue centre?
‘There are no rescue centres for the animals we have here,’ says Dr Redrobe. ‘I would never let our animals go anywhere where they could not be looked after properly. We have the expertise and the space here. We are a world-leading facility. We should be rescuing animals from other zoos.’
When occasionally a zoo fails, it tends to be small, with few dangerous or specialist animals. Which means that other, larger zoos can usually take them.
Now all the zoos are struggling.
‘No one’s going to say: “Ooh, we’ll take your gorillas. We’ll build a lovely new enclosure for them — it’ll only take 18 months.” There is no time or money. There is nowhere for them to go.’
The prospect of the animals here losing their lives is bad enough, but the global effect is catastrophic.
‘Once you’ve lost an endangered species, you’ve lost them,’ says Dr Redrobe. ‘It’s not like a coffee shop. You can’t just make some more cakes and open up again.
‘We are supposed to be the Ark, the back-up plan to protect the species being hunted to extinction in the wild.
‘Once the animals have been euthanised, they’ve gone. Which is why I am screaming — very loudly — for help.’
So loudly that, back in the great ape zone, the endangered bonobos — highly sexed and usually bouncing about like bonkers — already look unusually deflated and anxious.
They are, after all, our closest living relatives — sharing 98.7 per cent of our DNA — and with their pink lips, centre partings and dejected expressions, it’s almost as if they know what’s coming.