Nature’s Newborns: Steve Leonard on Britain’s 5 best zoos

Celebrity vet Steve Leonard guides us around the UK’s farms and zoos, introducing us to cute, exotic baby creatures on his new ITV show

Tune in tonight to see tiny monkeys, baby rhinos and miniature hippos on ITV’s Nature’s Newborns (7:30pm, 18 June). We catch up with presenter Steve Leonard (Vets in the Wild) to learn more about the show – and his top five zoos in the UK to see these cute critters up close…


What should we expect from Nature’s Newborns?

Across the UK animals are being born every day. That includes animals out in the wild, domestic species in our homes from our pets, and that also includes animals in zoos and collections. There are quite a lot of exotic babies as well. This show is really just a way of celebrating that, and seeing some of the people who look after these animals and what they go through waiting for the delivery of some amazing little ones. In some ways animals adapt and end up putting their youngsters in a situation where we need to intervene.

What’s been your best moment filming the series?

For me it was at my local zoo [Chester Zoo] looking at the baby black rhino. Rhino have taken a real hammering in Africa. We’re losing so many of them to the horn game. The captive population are now again proving to be a very vital part of the population where they’re kept nice and secure. Every time you get the rhino baby it’s just one more individual to help keep that population going. The relationship that the keepers have with them is astounding. Here we have an animal in the wild that, if you come across a black rhino in the bush, you have to climb a tree pretty quickly because they’re known for being really aggressive. Yet, at Chester Zoo, I was literally rubbing the mum’s face and feeding her branches off an oak tree and she’s just munching away as I’m stroking her face and scratching her ears. The tiny little baby that’s only a month old at this point is right next to me, this shy and interested little thing. It’s an amazing job that they do to look after these creatures, the hugely important yet massive dinosaur-like animals, and they’re almost like their pets. It’s absolutely amazing.

Zoos get a bad rep for taking animals out of the wild for our amusement; do you believe zoos are important for conservation or are they just cruel?

All through university I wasn’t very into zoos. Like a lot of people in my generation, we were all put off by the horror stories. However, today it’s a different story. Zoos are massively important in terms of conservation. I’m a patron of Chester Zoo’s conservation work – Acts for Wildlife. They sponsor several projects all around the world and are actually out there in the world building bridges to help the orangutans move throughout the forests. The zoo flew its engineering team out to the wild to build these over rivers and roads to allow populations of orangutans to be able to breed. They play a vital part in taking animals into captivity: some of are unfortunately extinct in the wild. The only solution is to get a sustainable population in the zoos, then release them back into the wild and monitor them. Zoos have a very important role to play.

Some people believe we should let nature take its course with certain species that need human intervention to survive: we inseminate pandas, for example, because they won’t mate themselves. Would you agree?  

When we talk about endangered species, we have to remember that extinct is forever. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. The vast majority of endangered species, are endangered due to their habitats being lost. Every animal has its own role within a habitat. That can be elephants knocking down trees to make grasslands, and that can be certain birds that digest seeds to make sure the next trees grow. When we talk about these large iconic species like tigers and rhinos, they are being selectively poached. It would be a shame for them to not be around because they’re amazing creatures to see. With tigers and rhinos, which are literally being hunted out of their habitat, they’re being targeted for medicine that doesn’t work. It’s tragic that a small population will trade these things and that the rest of the world will never see them living in the wild. If we can manage them, we can stop the poaching, keep the breeding populations up, we give them a future, a place to live and they will be there for years in the future. It’s the old adage that “I want my grandchildren to be able to see a living tiger”. They’re spectacular creatures, and it would be a shame to know that we lost all of these big iconic species.

Where can viewers of your new show enjoy nature’s newborns up close?

If you really want to see some weird and wacky newborns, go to your local zoo. There are always new arrivals, always something going on. If you’ve been to a zoo in the past four or five years, you’ll be amazed at the changes they’ve made in that time. The well-run zoos are fantastic in terms of making  a real spectacle out of the creatures you don’t always get to see with your naked eye. Meanwhile, in the countryside at this time of year, baby lambs are out, wild boar are such a rare treat to see, especially the baby ones, and there are horses being born. In the UK we’re blessed with some incredible natural species.

Steve Leonard’s top five UK zoos

1. Chester Zoo, Cheshire

Leonard says: “Places such as Chester Zoo are world-class.”

One of the UK’s largest zoos, with 111 acres, it has 422 species and was the first zoo in the UK to successfully breed Asian elephants in captivity. It has a monkey island, where visitors can see four energetic cheeky species bouncing around, plus a miniature monkey expo – where little versions of the climbing mammals can be gawked at for hours. Look out for the Emperor Tamarin species, complete with a long white moustache, which resembles that of German emperor Wilhelm II.

2. London Zoo, London

Leonard says: “London Zoo is heavily involved in conservation. They’re a world-class conservation organisation.”

The world’s oldest scientific zoo has 36 acres of space and contains 767 species including a gorilla kingdom, giant tortoises (in the Giants of the Galapagos exhibition) and komodo dragons – the largest living species of lizard on the planet.

Visit London Zoo with Radio Times travel, see here for more info

3. Longleat Safari Park, Wiltshire

Leonard says: “Longleat has an exceptional director who goes around the world and works as a vet with captive wildlife.”

The first drive-through safari park outside Africa is a whopping 9,000 acres in size with 500 animals roaming around in it. Reserves here include the Big Game Park, where lucky visitors will spot Bactrian camels, southern white rhinos and blue wildebeest. There is also a tiger enclosure, home to four Siberian or Amur tigers.

Visit  Longleat Safari Park with Radio Times Travel, see here for trips to the region

4. Colchester Zoo, Essex

Leonard says: “When I visited I was very impressed.”

This 60-acre zoo has a massive 5,666 varieties of animals living within its walls. It specialises in helping endangered animals. Top attractions include the recently added Otter Creek, which is full of cute smooth-coated otters and Lion Rock, complete with three African lions – stick around to hear them roar.

5. Yorkshire Wildlife Park, Doncaster

Leonard says: “It’s a private enterprise but is doing some fantastic work for charity – The Painted Dog Conservation”

South Yorkshire is not the place you’d expect to see zebras, wallabies, tigers and giraffes wandering around, but in this 260-acre enclosure the owners have built wetlands, waterfalls, a flamingo pool and African plains, to simulate the environments native to these species. A ramble around here is quite an incredible day out.

Visit Yorkshire with Radio Times Travel, see here for more info


Photos courtesy of Nigel Swales, Keven Law, Trish Steel, Alamy