‘When a honey bear pees, it really pees,’ says Javier laughing and wringing out his khaki shirt, his back saturated from his neck down to his soaking wet camouflage trousers. ‘Christ, it’s even in my socks!’
We are at Castellar Zoo, a refuge centre for rescued animals with over 53 species housed around the rugged landscape of winding sandy paths and leafy enclosures. It was created in 1998, by Ricardo Gistas who’s been rescuing animals since he was a small child, and opened its doors to the public in 2002. Being a few minutes from the coast of Algeciras, the shipping gateway to Africa, a fortnight doesn’t go by without the centre getting a call from the local police about yet another animal being smuggled on the black market; like the zoo’s favourite five month old resident Simba, a lion cub found in the back of a truck.
‘Simba was a new-born when he came to us,’ explains Javier the zoo keeper, attempting to disentangle himself from the strong tail of the, now happily relieved, South American honey bear around his neck. ‘Our little lion had been poached in Africa, transported through Morocco, smuggled overseas to Spain and was found on his way to Alicante. There are a lot of rich people out there and money can buy you whatever you want, unfortunately.’
Lucky Simba is getting a new home, a huge enclosure is being built just for him complete with giant log bridge and waterfall.
‘The authorities gave us six months to build it under specific EU regulations,’ Javier explains. ‘But we get no funding, we rely solely on entrance fees and public donations.’
Considering their lack of support, the amenities at the centre are impressive. They have a small cinema showing animal documentaries and cartoons (yep, you guessed it, The Lion King). They also have a bar built inside the tiger enclosure where you can enjoy a coffee on the sofa and watch Rahim the Bengal tiger have a shower in the waterfall. Rahim recently became a daddy for the second time, and visitors have spent the last two months queuing up to cuddle baby tiger Zhina.
Javier, now wearing a fresh clean shirt, runs up to the glass and greets the huge tiger who jumps up at him like a dog welcoming his owner home. He then runs off and appears on the enclosure roof, playing a game of tag with the tiger.
‘Rahim was rescued from a circus when it was so small he hadn’t even opened his eyes yet,’ says Patri, the girl who runs the bar. ‘I’ve worked here for nearly two months and I’ve never seen him roar, but when he sees his favourite people he rubs his face against the glass and purrs like a cat. I’ve got to know him and the monkeys so well. Take this one for instance,’ she says pointing at a tired looking monkey in the enclosure beside her, ‘she’s menopausal now but has had nine offspring. She doesn’t care for women or children but adores babies, when she sees one she stands on her back legs and tries to kiss them through the glass.’
It’s easy to forget she is talking about animals, to the eight members of staff and handful of volunteer the ‘residents’ are no different from their other colleagues.
In the cases of some of the zoo’s animals, it was only a few months ago that they were discovered squeezed into crates destined for the mansions of the rich and selfish. The days that follow an animal’s rescue is a matter of life and death for them, and many die in their cages awaiting the news of where their new home will be. The rescue centre has its own veterinary clinic where Ricardo, the owner, shows us the incubators, equipment and operating table.
‘Sadly we’ve lost a few animals on there,’ he says, pointing to the shiny metal table. ‘Some animals come in and are beyond help, but we have saved many, many more. We helped a lion to see again, and we always have an injured monkey or two in here. They are a nightmare, we have three males in together and they love to fight. Pepe is the worse.’ I ask Ricardo what drove him to set up the sanctuary sixteen years ago. ‘I wanted to help, the thought of those poor defenceless creatures being illegally stolen from Africa and sold around Europe sickened me. I love animals and I also love children, so to see them all in one place interacting and learning from each other is a dream.’
Interaction is key to the centre and what makes it so welcoming and unique. You can buy a bag of feed for a Euro and get in among the llamas and rabbits, sit beside the lemurs, stroke the bats and snakes – in fact there isn’t an animal the keepers won’t get out their enclosure for a closer look (except Paquito the crocodile, the oldest resident who’s given the luxury of staying put, thankfully).
In a world of health and safety gone mad and legal action being taken at any given opportunity, I ask the zoo keeper how such a relaxed attitude to animal handling is perceived by visitors.
Javier smiles and shrugs. ‘All our animals are vaccinated and we have no venomous creatures at the centre. They are accompanied by an expert keeper at all times too, so as soon as they are behaving tired or nervous we take them back to their beds. We treat them like we would our own babies.’
The staff at the sanctuary don’t see their jobs as just a job, but a vocation. Their passion is evident in everything they do; from the cleanliness of the centre to their continuous energy with the visitors and animals.
‘I used to run an ad agency,’ Javier tells us. ‘But when the recession hit I closed it down. I offered to volunteer here and have never looked back. This place is my home, even when I have a day off work I can’t stay away.’ He is the man that Castellar Zoo has to thank for their new website and recent rise in visitors.
‘We love seeing people’s comments and photos on our Facebook page,’ he says. ‘It’s amazing how quickly the word has spread. We host children’s parties now and nearly every day we have schools visit us. These kids can go home and tell their parents that they not only know what a lemur looks like but how soft their fur is and how tightly they hold your hand. You can’t beat that!’
With their newly-found popularity the zoo is growing. It has a small café and plans for an informal eating area.
‘It’s about being with family, enjoying a paella on a day out, about being together,’ Javier explains. ‘We aren’t in it for the money, we have never been a big tourist attraction with an overpriced gift shop and fast food restaurant. It’s about the animals, they always come first.’
As we leave we spot Zhina, the young tiger, gnawing a bone at the entrance. I go to stroke the cub and he jumps into my open arms and rubs his beautiful face against mine. I’m sure I can hear him purr with happiness, or maybe it’s me?
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