Dionne Christian is drawn to the charming characters of Hamilton Zoo
The Brazilian tapir is not one of the superstars of the animal world. Indeed, it's frequently referred to as "unique looking" which we all know is a kindly way of saying unattractive. Yet, the tapir which is so docile and patient-looking I feel uncharitable having written the above sentence, is one of the reasons I love Hamilton Zoo.
Living on the southern edge of Auckland, as we do, there are occasions when it takes less time to motor down State Highway 1 to Hamilton than it does to head north, through rush hour traffic, into the city centre.
It means we're fortunate because when we feel like goin' to the zoo, we've got a choice. But a day trip to Hamilton Zoo is well worth it even for those who live further afield.
The zoo, which started life as a pheasant farm before being bought and upgraded by the Hamilton City Council in 1987, is home to 600 native and exotic species of birds, reptiles, marsupials and mammals spread across 25 hectares of sometimes steep, but generally easy to get around, landscaped grounds.
The zoo appeals partly because of the drive down, skirting along the Waikato River and through the outer reaches of Hamilton, but also because many of the animals here are the smaller, less flashy species that don't ordinarily rate a starring role in a wildlife documentary: the tapirs, African hunting dogs, fishing cats, American plains bison, waterbuck, sitatunga (or swamp antelope) and Hochstetter's frogs.
That's not to say the zoo is without stars. Sumatran tigers, cheetah, southern white rhinoceroses, giraffes, zebras and chimpanzees, along with a range of smaller primates, call it home, too.
Enter, head past the cafe and children's playground, and you quickly arrive at the Parrot Court. I love brightly coloured birds, so this is a place to see some of my favourites, including Australian king parrots, blue and yellow macaws, plum-headed parakeets and galahs, and - hint to editors or tourism board representatives - dream of the day I get to go on a wildlife safari and see them in their natural habitats.
Intelligent, inquisitive and vibrant as the parrots may be, it's the capuchin monkeys and cotton-topped tamarins whose antics catch the attention of my girls. Their enclosures, tall and glass-fronted, afford excellent views of their dexterous meanderings.
The tamarins also give us one of our most delightful animal encounters. They're simply intrigued by a much-loved teddy bear one of my daughters clutches, gathering at the glass front to stare and exchange quizzical looks with one another.
Visit the small cats, ring-tailed lemurs and meerkats, and then you come to the spacious chimpanzee enclosure which includes a grassed outdoor area with climbing equipment as well as indoor sleeping and feeding quarters which look a bit like a minimalist apartment built for a troupe of acrobats.
Meet the Keeper talks, short and lively lectures about animal behaviour, personalities, food preferences, habitats and conversation issues, are held daily around the zoo. The chimpanzee one (on Wednesdays, Fridays and weekends) is well worth checking out.
With nothing but glass separating you from the chimps, you can watch them negotiate the social complexities of chimp society as they eat lunch. It gives you a genuine appreciation of how big and powerful these animals are and, given this, I've got to say it's as up close and personal as I want to get with our nearest primate relatives.
It's a pleasant downhill walk to the western side of the zoo, where there are wallaby, tigers, African hunting dogs, alpaca, giraffes, the sitatunga and native waterfowl as well as the Waikato Wetlands Exhibit.
Circle around the wetlands past the brolga birds, one of Australia's largest water birds, and you'll start the ascent back toward the entrance seeing along the way waterbuck, ostrich, blackbuck, giraffes and zebra, cheetah, bison, spider monkeys and, of course, the tapir which are about the size of a large pig but with trunks.
There's more opportunity to see native flora and fauna in the FreeFlight Sanctuary, New Zealand's largest walk-thru aviary soaring to 17m at its highest point. The birds are fed daily but selected plant varieties means there's natural food for them, too.
There are two reptile houses at the zoo, one for native species such as tuatara and green geckos, and one for exotic species. You'll find Hochstetter's frogs close by as well; the zoo is home to the only captive colony in the world. Hochstetter's frogs used to be widespread throughout New Zealand but introduced predators and habitat destruction means these tiny nocturnal beings are scarce and hard to spot.
I guess you could say the animals at Hamilton Zoo tend to be nature's characters. I like to see them because they're a reminder of the enormous diversity, colour and uniqueness of life on Earth and the need to cherish and conserve all species as well as the habitats they live in.
Hamilton Zoo opens daily from 9am-5pm, except Christmas Day. The zoo is approximately 7 minutes from downtown Hamilton on Brymer Rd and is well sign-posted from State Highway 1.By Dionne Christian