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Feed the animals in the Ardennes
Become an animal keeper for the day at Argonne Découverte
5 mins OF ESCAPE
Feed the bats, stroke a racoon, or carry a bird of prey on your hand! Only in your dreams? Well, believe it or not, you can enjoy this experience thanks to the Keeper for the Day programme organised by the park Argonne Découverte at Olizy-Primat (in the French part of the Ardennes). An unusual and thrilling experience that I enjoyed with Lola, aged 21, and 17-year-old Louis.
Feeding Batman miniatures...
A few words of warning
If we had known what to expect at Park Argonne Découverte (PAD)... We'd have visited it ages ago! Especially Louis who wasn't very enthusiastic but agreed to come with the encouragement of his sister. Three is the maximum number of participants for this exceptional experience and the minimum age is 12. You'll need an insurance certificate and you should go in robust shoes and clothes. Once properly prepared, you can relax and enjoy it. Well almost. Don't think you're going to just sit and watch. After the welcome pleasantries and a quick presentation of the site, you immediately become the keeper, heading for the technical zoo where your first task is to prepare a meal for the bats!
Where you learn to feed miniatures of Batman
Our fabulous animal-keeping adventure begins at the technical zoo, "the most important part" of PAD. We're welcomed by the entire team. Virginie, Coraline and Maxime are busy preparing rations for the birds of prey, the racoons and the wolves who need a high-protein diet. Luckily for us, the bats prefer fruit salad. Léa gives us knives and skewers, as well as some corks to ensure Batman's miniatures don't hurt their wings on the pointed ends. Apples, pears, bananas, etc. A total of 8 kg, that's a lot of kebabs! After doing fifty or so, we've got the hang of it.
In the daytime, we observe nocturnal animals at rest
Open your eyes, it'll soon be dark
Ready to enter the cave of the Egyptian fruit bats? Léa guides us to their den. It's incredibly hot, "between 22 and 26 degrees celsius" and incredibly dark too. The bats brush past us. So why are we disturbing them? All in a good cause, ladies! We hang up the fruit kebabs one by one as our eyes slowly grow accustomed to the darkness. We say hello to Scratch, an injured bat who can't fly. The caring team have built him a scaffolding trail so that he can move around. "It'll soon be dark and we have to feed the genets before the visitors arrive" Léa reminds us. In this underground building that's home to dozens of nocturnal species, the life cycle is reversed. Here, it gets dark at 9.45 am so that the public can observe these nocturnal animals in full action.
The amazing cats of the pharaohs
"Genets are like cats", Léa warns us. In other words, they're very sociable animals! We're surprised to be sniffed as soon as we enter and a daring individual climbs up our guide's leg and onto her shoulder. "Excellent!" "This was the cat of the ancient Egyptians." So how come this cute little creature stopped being a domestic pet? Because of its very strong smell and its non-retractable claws. Léa leaves them a meal of crickets and chicken before we leave. Our guide listens attentively and replies to our countless questions. We're under the spell as we finish our tour of the nocturnal animal kingdom before heading back to the surface.
A fascinating encounter with the birds of prey
Next we head for the airborne kingdom. Nicolas casually invites us to join the preparations for the bird of prey show. "These birds are real athletes. We have to weigh them one by one to make sure they're in good health." The astonishing sequence begins, from the largest bird to the smallest: eagle, eagle owl, common kestrel, barn owl, tawny owl and so on. They all have names: Apache, Youpi... They are meticulously weighed-in, to the nearest gramme. The birds then return to their perches near the stage set. "This helps them to get used to the crowd gradually as people arrive." Of the park's fifty or so birds, about fifteen are to take part in the show that day. They're wonderful! Lola jumps at the chance to carry a barn owl. She chooses little Youpi, who's "lighter than the glove!"
Before the show, we join Maxime for a captivating experience: visiting the racoon enclosure. We split into two groups before entering, to avoid frightening them. Maxime carries a bucket of raw meat and fruit. "Racoons are opportunistic omnivores."
We sit down slowly on a tree trunk and the head of the group comes closer. "She's interested in your camera." Lola strokes her but I hesitate, I daren't touch her. "The racoon isn't agressive as long as we don't disturb it. It's a very intelligent animal and can even open a tent. In Canada, campers have to use padlocks." After this moment of shared intensity, Lola and Louis are trying to make up their minds if they prefer the genets, the owls or the racoons, when Maxime announces that we're off to see the wolves.
From a distance, we admire twelve beautiful Eurasian grey wolves. Maxime throws them a few treats to encourage them to come nearer. They have plenty of hiding places in their 1.6-hectare enclosure. We're awe-struck by these legendary animals. Time stands still. But the birds of prey are about to open their show and it's quite a long way away. Our role as animal keepers comes to an end and we become spectators again, but we still feel very lucky. The bird keepers recognise us and, who knows, maybe the birds do too. We certainly recognise them and remember their names... We enjoy a last walk in the park, savouring the privilege, before leaving enriched by this new experience, enthralled by the new sensations and enchanted by the team's warm and friendly welcome and the time they have devoted to sharing their knowledge with us so generously.