Published: 00:01, 17 September 2017
The pygmy slow loris is deceptively adorable – it actually licks a venomous liquid from its arm, mixes it with saliva and can deliver a potentially fatal bite to humans.
The mammal is one of more than 40 species that can be seen at Hemsley Conservation Centre near Fairseat, just outside Gravesend, which has just celebrated its second anniversary and is planning to expand over the coming months and take in even more animals.
Former Gravesend Grammar School pupil Adam Hemsley opened the small zoo in August 2015 and, aged just 22, he was widely believed to have been the world’s youngest zoo director, although Guinness World Records has told him it can’t confirm the claim.
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As a child and teenager he had a menagerie of pets, including lizards, snakes, cats, guinea pigs and degus – a type of rodent – but was never allowed a dog.
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After completing a diploma and a degree in animal management, and working with reptiles at London Zoo, doing “a bit of everything” at Paradise Wildlife Park in Hertfordshire and landing a job as an elephant keeper at Colchester Zoo, Adam felt it was time to open his own place.
He now has twice the number of animals he started out with, as well as one full-time and two part-time colleagues, a team of volunteers and ever increasing visitor numbers, despite the centre only being advertised through word of mouth.
Adam, who finally has a dog after adopting a puggle (a pug cross beagle) from Battersea Brands Hatch, joked: “I swear if my mum had let me have a dog when I was little this place wouldn’t be here.
“I’d always wanted to have my own zoo. I left Colchester and had some time off so it was a case of now or never. It just grew from there.
“I don’t think you can underestimate the impact seeing an animal can have on someone. You can show people a lemur or something and say ‘this will be gone in 10 years, what are you doing to save it?’.
“We’ve got species that zoos have saved and are saving. The way lemurs have declined in Madagascar is unreal.
“There are about 1,500 left in the wild, down from 800,000 in 15 or 20 years. It’s due to deforestation, because people in the west want redwood furniture.”
The aforementioned pygmy slow loris rots flesh with its toxic bite and can send a human into deadly anaphylactic shock.
It is seriously endangered thanks to its use in traditional Asian medicine and the illegal pet trade, which often leads to its teeth being cruelly clipped out to stop it biting.
Hemsley also has the UK’s only breeding pair of kinkajous – rainforest mammals related to raccoons – and hopes the female will be pregnant soon.
Team leader Henry Weedon, 26, said: “We work together with other zoos and conservation wildlife parks as part of a European breeding programme.
"If an animal has bred, like the black tailed marmoset bred at Longleat, they are often moved to other centres to stop inbreeding. The conservation side and education side is why we’re here.”
So what would Adam and Henry do at Hemsley Conservation Centre if money was no object?
“I’d build a massive indoor rainforest, in a big glass building,” Adam replied. “And we’d have every rainforest species in there,” Henry added.
Perhaps the Messenger will return to the centre in the future to cover the opening of Kent’s first rainforest – watch this space.
Among the animals at the centre is a striped skunk, Pepe, an unwanted pet who arrived weighing an unhealthy 6.4kg, almost three times as heavy as he should be.
Henry Weedon explained to youngsters gathered around Pepe’s pen that skunks make “terrible” pets and the creature was given dog food and beef rather than the bugs and insects he should have been eating.
Bandit, an Asian palm civet, came from another zoo. His less fortunate relatives in south and south-east Asia are often farmed, sometimes in terrible conditions, to produce kopi luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee.
"The creatures eat coffee cherries – the fruit that contains the coffee bean – and the part-digested bean is extracted from their droppings and turned into the drink.
The meerkats are one of the centre’s most popular animals, thanks to a certain advertising campaign, while ring tailed lemurs Kevin and Isaac are often favoured by visitors taking part in a ‘meet the animals’ experience, although they are not always as cute as they seem.
“They use their tails for ‘stink fighting’,” Henry told delighted young visitors. “They sit down with their tails in front of them and wee. They then rub their wee and scent onto their tails and dangle them in front of their opponent’s face.”
One sight not to be missed is 5kg prehensile-tailed porcupine Klaus, who can hang from a tree branch by his tail and has learnt to touch a target to get a treat.
“It’s really good enrichment for them,” Adam said. “We stimulate their senses through food or smell. This is the first time he’s been able to go outside as he only had an indoor enclosure at his last zoo.”
For those who like to be even closer to nature, one building features two “roaming” common marmosets, which may jump on an unsuspecting person’s shoulder if they think they are going to get fed.
An armadillo, tortoises, snakes, tarantulas and a crocodile called Becky are among the other creatures that can be found in the small set-up, tucked among trees just off the A227.
The zoo now boasts a picnic area, gift shop and classroom and a toilet block is being built to replace the portable loos.
Within the next few months Hemsley’s first feline will arrive – a rusty-spotted cat – and by Easter they plan to have clouded leopards.
See www.hemsleyconservationcentre.co.uk for more.
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