Linda Herrick encounters a rugged yet sensitive stranger in a romantic Spanish setting.

There he was. A tall, dark, handsome stranger I met in Valencia, on Spain's southern coast. It was dusk, in the western outreaches of the city, in a long gulley.

He was sitting on a rock, pensive and still. Then his head turned and he looked straight at me: a massive alpha male silverbacked gorilla. Just a sheet of thick glass separated us. His head was long and pointed, his black eyes shrewd. His hands were as big as paella pans. He would have killed me if he could.

"I call him The Philosopher. He often sits on that rock with his head resting on his hand," says Gicu Cerchezan, my guide on the walk around Valencia's Bioparc, a new, privately owned zoo.

"Zoo" is not the right word for Bioparc, which opened in 2008 and spreads along 100,000sq m of land in Parque de Cabecera, in the old Turia river bed, diverted after deadly floods in 1957. Bioparc is dedicated to providing natural ecosystems for its animals, all rescued from inhumane, outdated zoos from eastern Europe and African nations such as Angola.

Bioparc is divided into "territories" - savannah, equatorial forest, Madagascar, baobab forest and wetland zones, each one replicating as closely as possible the animals' original habitats.

Bioparc participates in various threatened species breeding programmes in Europe, and supports conservation projects in Africa.

Its primary aim is to offer the visitor a "total immersion" experience - the ability to observe the animals behaviour naturally outdoors, unfettered by bars or cages. Separation is achieved by moats, bridges, tunnels and glass.

Cerchezan, who grew up in Romania - where, he says, his childhood visits to local zoos were traumatic - loves his job.

And so we walk through a tunnel and start out in Madagascar, where we are joined by long-tailed lemurs, bold and confident in human company and sharing space with flamingos, ducks and storks.

Equatorial forest is home to a diverse range of creatures, with those that won't eat each other grouped together in scenes reminiscent of a Garden of Eden. Black-crowned cranes, bongos, otters, duikers and pygmy hippos hang out in one area, a sleek, stunning black panther in another.

A gang of chimps scamper around their own grassy home, while our friend the gorilla shares his space with a female or two.

In the savannah, Cerchezan shows me a large white rhino, separated from a group of his fellows on the other side of the bridge, and asks if I can see something unusual about this enormous mammal. It's not hard: he keeps walking around in a circle. Cerchezan says he was rescued from a zoo where he'd been confined to a tiny space for years, walking around and around. He is so damaged psychologically the keepers believe he may never join the other rhinos.

A herd of elephants present a happier picture, rolling around in the dust. A group of giraffes cavort alongside the zebras, while nearby - but out of reach - a male lion snoozes. There are 54 species at Bioarc, with new animals continually arriving. I was captivated by a mother and child hippo swimming gracefully underwater, watched from below from a thick glass-plated walkway.

Bioparc is a place with a profound educational and emotional impact, which its founders and staff hope will ripple out as the struggle continues worldwide to conserve species.

* Getting there: All four daily Emirates flights from New Zealand connect at Dubai with the airline's daily service direct to Madrid. See From Madrid you can get to Valencia by train ( or on domestic flights (see

* Bioparc: See Entry costs €10.50-20 ($20-39).

* Further information: See the Spanish Tourism website at
Linda Herrick visited Valencia as guest of Spanish Tourism and Emirates Airlines.