|In meerkat heaven|
I am so lucky. As I get older, I'm still managing to have amazing birthday celebrations and this year's not only set a new bar, but also possibly created a new tradition.
With the planned trip to the Reindeer Centre off the table, I was feeling pretty down, but then the Mistress of Google-fu, my darling wife, Rachel discovered the Hemsley Conservation Centre, which also happened to be just round the corner from her parents' (where we would leave Alice).
HCC is a small, but incredible, breeding centre for rare animals, that combines education with conservation... and, as part of its fundraising process, offers "experiences".
My "experience" was to spend three-quarters of an hour feeding a small meerkat mob (two adults and two children).
The zookeeper, Maddie, showed me into the mob's enclosure, sat me on a chair, and gave me a bowl to food to hold on my lap. Because these were wild animals, I wasn't allowed to try and stroke them, instead they had to come to me... and they weren't shy about coming forward.
In no time at all, the noisy meerkats were all over me, on my arms, in my lap, on my shoulders, in the bowl, fighting for food, taking tumbles, having bundles.
It was indescribably amazing for someone who loves animals.
And, all the time I was asking Maddie questions about the little creatures and learning more about them.
It was a grey, drizzly, misty Friday and we were the only visitors at the centre, so later on, Maddie came and found us to say she was about to feed the lorikeets and would we like to help.
So, naturally, we did and soon we had colourful birds on our arms, heads, and shoulders.
|Rachel and I feeding the lorikeets|
Rachel and I took our time exploring the centre. It doesn't cover a huge area of land, but it's economically designed, making fantastic use of the space it has to give all the creatures in their care the most room.
The signage is great, explaining what the creatures are, how endangered they are and so on, and the staff are knowledgeable and really friendly.
Another member of staff was building a barrier in front of the tarya enclosure and stopped for a moment to explain to us all about this very rare and intelligent animal.
Towards the end of our visit, Maddie found us again to let us know it was Pepe The Skunk's feeding time, so we joined her for that. Pepe was a rescue animal, so - having been someone's pet - we were able to stroke him before he was fed.
Ultimately, due to the weather, the only animals we didn't get to see were the wild cats, who had sensibly retired somewhere dry and warm, but we still saw marmosets, porcupines, kinkajou, parrots, wallabies, snakes, and lizards.
Rachel's photographs and my few words can't do the Hemsley Conservation Centre, in Fairseat, justice. It's a hidden gem in the countryside and we're definitely going back.
In fact, while I was in with the meerkats, I'd already declared that this was going to be my new birthday tradition.
Rachel had found me a new 'safe space', where I could forget about the outside world and just focus on playful, innocent animals, and do my - very small - bit towards their care.
This is also a new charity that I'll be supporting. After almost a decade of donating on my birthday to Monkey World down in Dorset, I think it's time to direct my limited funds towards an exotic animal cause closer to home.
So, now I shall be sponsoring my friends the meerkat mob!
|Pepe the skunk|
I got a lovely selection of birthday cards, with these two in particular capturing the essence of 'me', one from Rachel's parents and one - handmade - from my godson Alec.
|Perfect cards that sum up my life, (left) from the in-laws and (right) from godson Alec|
Present-wise, I did incredibly well as well. There was a definite superhero theme (as I would have hoped), which included the enormous (it's almost three foot high, I reckon) Fantastic Four: Behold... Galactus graphic novel, from Rachel, and a Batcave doormat from Paul.
In a stroke of thoughtful genius (for which he is renowned), Paul also got me a DVD of Hooper, which I'd talked about on this blog back when Burt Reynolds died in September.
Overall, it was an unexpectedly amazing birthday. We've found a truly magical - and important - new place to visit, and support, and I was reminded of all the people who care about me, which was rather touching.