Captive Animal Photography – Yorkshire Wildlife Park

May 08, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

This post is a review of Yorkshire Wildlife Park, from the perspective of a photography day-trip, and is part of a series about nature photography in captivity.

You can see my original discussion of nature photography in captivity here, along with my tips for better zoo photos.
Other reviews in the series can be found here.

Please note that this is an unofficial and independent review of my experience in visiting.



YWP is a relatively new park, which offers a fantastic opportunity to start a fresh, with newly designed, large enclosures. They’ve only been open a few short years, and the park is still expanding, affording plenty of space to the animals. In fact this was highlighted by the number of visitors I saw who’d brought binoculars with them! I don’t think I’ve seen that at a zoo before, but it’s a good idea if you visit YWP, and it speaks volumes about the enclosure spaces there. It’s a long way from home for me, so I was only able to visit by combining it with a week-long trip to the area. Like many UK zoos, YWP is also closely associated with a wildlife charity, using profits from the zoo and public donations to fund conservation and wildlife aid. The big draws for me were the selection of big cats, and the opportunity to see a polar bear.



I have quite mixed feelings about seeing polar bears in captivity. They’ve evolved to live over vast territories in the wild, moving from land in the summer to endless miles of sea ice in the winter. They’re also intelligent animals with a wide range of highly active senses, which makes them hard to keep stimulated and mentally healthy. For more information about the issues concerning polar bears in captivity, have a read of this ZooCheck article. Not that it’s a huge problem for the bears, but aesthetically, they’re less photogenic in captivity too, turning a browny green colour due to algae living on their fur. In short, if you want to see a white polar bear, see it in the arctic.

And so to Yorkshire Wildlife Park specifically; I was of the belief that they acknowledged these controversies, and their policies seemed to reflect that; They’re in the process of building the world’s largest polar bear enclosure, to afford their residents the maximum space possible, and I was under the impression that as they take in more polar bears, they’re only accepting bears which have been retired from breeding programmes elsewhere around the world. In my mind, re-homing older bears is an acceptable compromise to allow people to engage with such a charismatic species, rather than keeping them for the purposes of breeding more bears for captivity, which I don’t think I’d be happy for my entry fee to be funding. This was also the strategy outlined by the keeper talk when we visited. However, this Born Free article (released since my visit), suggests that they are planning to breed polar bears at YWP. I don’t think there’s any reason to rush to judgement at this stage, but if a new cub does appear at YWP then I certainly won’t be visiting again, as I don’t believe it’s an ethical policy I want to fund and reinforce.

All in all, if you can reconcile the pros and cons of animal welfare, and if YWP uphold their responsible attitude to re-homing older bears from poorer conditions, it’s a really special experience to see a polar bear. When we visited, Victor was the only bear at YWP. The keepers were all very enthusiastic about him, and were clearly very committed to enrichment; maintaining an interesting and stimulating environment for him. His size was remarkable, though not even that huge for a polar bear, his enormous frame was a real sight close-up. For the average Brit, a polar bear isn’t something you’re going to see in the wild, and I doubt I ever will. So it’s great to be able to see one closer to home.

Shortly before closing time, the sun was low enough to get this dark, back-lit effect by exposing just for the highlights, and letting the shadows fade to black…




I had the impression that YWP was good for photography, and being new, I expected that the enclosures would have been designed with photography – a very popular pastime these days and a great draw for visitors to zoos – in mind. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to have been the case. I spent a pleasant day there, enjoying the animals, but frustrated by the non-photo-friendly enclosures. I don’t doubt that some will disagree with this, but I’m yet to see any really good photos taken there, and I can see why.

The lions have a series of 3 large and varied neighbouring enclosures, housing 3 different prides. The only spot I found where I wouldn’t be shooting down on them was on the mound in the photo to the right, where I was fortunate to find a pair of lionesses relaxing. I stayed with them for about half an hour hoping for some activity, and this was as good as it got. It’s a nice shot, but it’s not anything particularly exciting. Sadly, this being seemingly the only suitable spot for photography, which also requires a bit of luck to find a lion on, is also part of the female-only pride so there’s no way to get that classic male lion shot I’d like. If you took a large lens (500mm or more), you may get lucky with the pride around the back, but the fencing is at a particularly frustrating height, so you need them in just the right spot. The third pride are only visible through wire mesh fencing or from above.

The polar bear enclosures are all large compared to most zoo enclosures, which is good to see. But it also means you have to be lucky to see it close up. With patience, you can get closer views, but only either through photo-prohibitive mesh fencing, or from above, looking down at an unflattering angle. The only real chance of getting a better perspective is if the bear is further away, so the height differential is less obvious. But then the background is less natural looking. On a calm day, you could look for reflections in the water, but it was a classic Yorkshire afternoon on my visit, with wind ripping across the enclosure. My best advice would be to wait until late in the day, and hope for some back-lit opportunities, as I was lucky to get.

The lemur enclosure is a good one, continuing the modern trend for primate enclosures which you can walk through. They’re in the woods, which can provide a nice diffused light for photography. On my visit, it was frustrating to see that the keepers had put their food out behind the shed, away from the footpath, so it wasn’t easy to get close to them. They have quite a large enclosure, but were all bunched up at one end where the food was. I can’t imagine why they don’t spread food over the entire enclosure to encourage them to use all the space and trees they have. So this prevented me from getting any lemur photos on my visit, but the lemurs and their enclosure do have great potential for photography.

Similar to the lemurs, there’s a nice little walk-around enclosure for South American species. Of those, the capybara offer a really interesting opportunity for something a bit different to the usual zoo photos. Unfortunately on my visit, they were particularly inactive, and inaccessible, but with an open enclosure, I’m sure it’s quite possible to get some nice shots of them if you’re lucky.

The tiger enclosures are not great for photography due to wire mesh fencing, and your view down onto the animals. But the largest one offers potential if you’re prepared to lug around a conspicuous (600mm) lens with you. I did see a couple of chaps with such lenses staking out the tiger enclosure, but I think you’d have to stay there for the day to get much, if anything, which wouldn’t allow you to see much else, so this is only an option for locals who can go regularly. The enclosure is on a slope, so they’re either close, but below you, or at eye level, but too far away. And if they’re at the top of the slope, then you have the buildings behind. So you need to catch them near the top, but not at the top, with a long lens, as they move. Good luck with that. Hmm.

The giraffe enclosure isn’t very photo friendly. You can either shoot up from the ground, or down from above, and the backgrounds around them are not good, so you can only really frame their heads against the sky from below.

I thought the amur leopard enclosure was good, though as you may expect with big cats even more than other species’, patience is required. I think they had two enclosures, one considerably larger than the other, but both with large, clean windows to shoot though. If you’re lucky, you can get some nice shots of them as they walk your way. I processed the shot below onto black in Lightroom, to exclude the distracting background. The larger enclosure has a better (usable) background, but with more space the leopard is less likely to come close.

Leopard walking towards the camera out of the blackLeopard in the DarkLow-light portrait of a leopard.




Best Enclosures Leopard, Lemurs. Polar bears are fantastic to see, but the enclosure isn’t that photo friendly. If you hang around the leopards, you can also see from there if the lions are on the mound.
Species Selection 3/5 It’s a privilege to see polar bears, as well as ticking off lions, tigers, and leopards. Species-wise, they’re big hitters in my opinion. But as a relatively new zoo, still growing, they don’t have nearly as many species as most more established zoos.
Price 4/5 It’s cheaper than most zoos, but has fewer animals. Overall, a fair price.
Day Out 4/5 It’s a nice zoo, with a positive feel, and modern enclosures. It’s also small enough to see the animals a couple of times without feeling that you’re rushing round. Take food with you, as the restaurant there wasn’t great.
Photography Experience 2/5 It’s a frustrating struggle at times, but it’s worth a visit if you’re local. You can always get lucky with an amazing encounter at any zoo if you keep your wits about you.
Overall 3/5 We still had a good day, and the species’ they have are some of the top of my ‘must-see’ list. Don’t go for the photography, but be prepared if an opportunity presents itself.

Post by George Wheelhouse, 2015.


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