WITH paws outstretched and her bright eyes flashing in the sun, Coconut the binturong races along a branch towards a juicy-looking pile of fruit.

Considering she is only a few months old, and has barely seen another living soul other than her mum and dad and their dedicated 27 year-old keeper Estelle Morgan, Coconut is hardly shy. In fact she seems to relish the attention from the small group of onlookers gathered by her enclosure.

Coconut – a ‘bear cat’ originating in South East Asia – is one of the more recent arrivals at the Cotswold Wildlife Park, which has finally reopened its gates after more than three months of closure following the coronavirus lockdown.

But while the returning visitors may be an amusing curiosity for Coconut and parents Dobby and Himala, for the wildlife park, which occupies 160 acres of beautiful west Oxfordshire countryside, they are a welcome sign that things are finally returning to normal.

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The zoo prides itself on its accessibility, famously open all year apart from Christmas Day. Having to lock the gates was heartbreaking for staff and its regular visitors.

It was also financially disastrous. It costs £10,000 a day to keep the place going. Food for the animals weighs in at £500 a day alone. When guests are coming through the gates it pays for itself, but when no one is paying for tickets, snacks and souvenirs, things get tricky.

“It has been awful,” says the park’s owner Reggie Hayworth – son of the zoo’s founder John. “It was very stressful, there’s no getting away from it. We’ve never closed before. So it is a huge relief to be open again.”

The closure could not have come at a worse time, coinciding with a spring heatwave, the Easter and May Bank Holidays and the park’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

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“It followed a wet winter so lots of people were looking forward to finally getting out,” he sighs. “We could see people nervous in March though with visitor numbers way lower than the previous year.

“It was upsetting having to close, though we still needed to be here to care for the animals.

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“Wandering around, with nobody here, it felt like my own private zoo. I felt like that Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar – but without the cartel to pay for it!

“It was lovely and still beautiful, but melancholic as there was nobody to share it with. And even though we had four good years in a row, we were burning our way through our reserves. No one expected this – and there are always things we need to spend money on.”

The park has almost 150 full time equivalent members of staff including keepers, many of whom live on site. About 50 people were needed to look after the park and its residents – which range from soldier ants and snakes to tiny tamarin monkeys all the way up to lions, rhinos and giraffe.

The rest of the staff went on furlough – Reggie making up the balance from his own pocket to ensure no one suffered.

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“I didn’t want anyone to lose out because of something beyond their control,” he said, softly, while picking up pieces of discarded fruit peel from the ground.

While the zoo has reopened, many attractions, such as the miniature railway, playground, restaurant and shop remain closed. Also shut are the indoor enclosures – such as the reptile and bat houses and the walk-through Madagascar lemur compound.

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Elsewhere, one-way systems are in place – including the boardwalk over the wolf compound – and hand sanitiser provided throughout the park and gardens. Visitor numbers are also limited to allow for social distancing.

Reggie said there were a lot of ‘bottled up visits’ but urged supporters not to all rush back at once. He said: “Yes, we are open, but we are not going anywhere, so please don’t pour in at once.

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“People have different attitudes to social distancing and we don’t want our staff or visitors to feel under pressure. Please do be aware that it could be very busy. We don’t plan to close again, so just come back when you feel comfortable.”

He said staff were keen not to turn people away, adding: “People are enjoying the chance to reconnect with nature – that’s what we are all about.

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“It is going to be tough to bounce back, but we have been here for 50 years and will be here for a long time more to come. It’s very emotional to be back.”

As she set off to feed the mongooses, Estelle agreed. “It has been a luxury to be able to work here even while it’s empty,” she smiled. “But it is nice to get back to normality!”

The Cotswold Wildlife Park is open every day, though visitors are asked to choose quiet days and times. See cotswoldwildlifepark.co.uk