It took one very brave little girl to encourage this intrepid reporter to get up close and personal with 30-year-old Azizah, one of Whipsnade Zoo’s 10-strong Asian elephant herd.
As a special birthday treat, Luton burns survivor Shamiam Arif had been invited by the zoo to an ele-encounter to remember – and she’d asked me to come too.
It was her 12th birthday on Saturday (August 23) and this is one present the Challney Girls High student will never forget.
Meet the Elephants is a new Whipsnade initiative – a chance to give one of these ponderous pachyderms a good scrub, then feed it a healthy snack.
Sounds exciting on paper . . . but wait until the huge beast lumbers into the special arena.
Even though Azizah has lovely long eyelashs and a gentle expression, the sheer size of her is enough to induce an instant panic attack. She’s also pregnant – much to the zoo’s delight – with the thunder of baby ele feet expected in early autumn.
Keeper Katie Webster has already issued instructions: no sudden moves or loud noises. Simply do as we’re told and all will be well.
Azizah is encouraged to lie on her side, then given a good hosing down. We’re provided with a bucket and brush and encouraged to get on with it.
Ever tried washing an ele? It makes scrubbing a muddy bus pale into insignificance.
For starters, her hairs stand up like wire bristle. The brush bounces up and down on her vast tummy and I wonder if we’re even making an impression.
But she seems quite at peace with all the hard work going on around her and we’re scarcely aware of her breathing.
Then it’s on to her other side and more furious scrubbing on her back.
This time Shamiam and I have got it sussed – two hands to the brush with hers guiding mine. Still we barely make a mark. But we’re beginning to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience and feel really sad when our ablution duties come to a stop so the lady in question can have a treat.
Her trunk is softer than a puppy’s muzzle as she she gently forages for a quartered apple and lifts it into her mouth.
Then it’s a round of applause for the adorable ele as she sways off to join the rest of the herd on their ‘trunk walk’ round the zoo.
Shamiam is speechless with excitement. Then she says, eyes shining: “That was A-mazing . . . thank you, Whipsnade!”
Meet the Elephants costs £99 per person, Monday to Friday, and £125 at weekends. For more information visit www.zsl.org/zsl-whipsnade-zoo
> Now watch Natalee Hazelwood’s video at www.lutontoday.co.uk