It was high summer, and the evenings went on and on with lovely balmy weather. I was a lowly Veterinary Student seeing practice at Whipsnade Zoo. They had kindly provided accommodation within the Zoo, which I shared with other students as well as some noisy peacocks.
All day I had observed the Vet in charge – Richard Kock – charge around the Zoo at top speed, caring for the various creatures, his brain racing at double the speed of mine. It was exhausting but exhilarating. The Zoo was packed with visitors, but we were barely aware of them, except as a buzz of background noise, as we used shortcuts and private roads.
And then the Zoo would close, the cars and the screaming children were all gone, and I was left as if alone, surrounded by peace, space and unusual animals. It was heavenly. I could stroll past all the outdoor exhibits and cages, and observe the wild animals relaxing.
Then one evening I saw something that took my breath away. A huge female black bear was reclining in the setting sunlight, with her back against a rock. She was feeding her twin bear cubs. It was not something I suspect very many people are privileged to see.
I was all alone, no more than 30 feet away from the little family, separated safely by a deep ditch and a high wall. But I had a completely clear view of them, behaving almost like a human family and relaxing in the warmth of the sun. I felt sure that the mother would not have behaved that way when the public were around. The bears did not seem to mind me quietly appreciating them, whilst I could hardly shake off my sense of awe and improbability, and have carried the memory with me ever since.
Nowadays, Woburn Safari Park is the only place in the UK where black bears are currently displayed to the public. Right now they have a litter of three cubs, the first to be born there in 18 years. (See www.woburnsafari.co.uk/news/2016/meet-the-three-little-bears for more information about them.) These three are still being fed inside the den, their sexes uncertain as the keepers need to maintain their distance for now.