Animals & Co

A trip to the Pistoia Zoo

Keith Sheldrake
June 21, 2012

What better fun family outing than a day at the zoo? Ever since Lorenzo de' Medici astounded and entertained Florentines by keeping a giraffe in his menagerie in 1486, Tuscans have kept collections of exotic animals to admire and educate. The zoo in Pistoia was founded in 1970, covers 7 hectares and houses around 400 animals. With baby animals, feeding times, shows and parties, educational events and playgrounds, kids will be entertained from morning til night, and as Keith Sheldrake explains, even parents may find it hard to drag themselves away!



Most young kids enjoy nothing more than being with animals. If your kids are among these, then take them to the zoo in Pistoia ( My 5- and 6-year-olds like it so much that we have a season ticket (for the cost of two entrances for a family of 4 you can go as many times as you like). We go at least every school break, and sometimes more often. Having a season ticket also means we can go just for a couple of hours in the afternoon rather than the whole day for no extra cost. It is worth the 30-minute drive from Florence to Pistoia West (see box).


A day at the zoo is not only a fun day out for all the family, but also teaches kids respect for animals and the environment. Here are some highlights.





Yes, I agree animals should be best left in the wild, where nature intended, but the fact is that years ago they were not and the question should be, ‘What do we do with them now?' Pistoia Zoo started its renovation project in 2001 and whilst there are still some old-fashioned cramped zoo cages there are projects in progress to change that. The zoo has just purchased a neighbouring strip of land that adds significantly to its size, part of which is destined for a new elephant enclosure, which is another goal proving that the Pistoia Zoo is well on the way to reform. The lions, tigers and wolves all have new large environments, and in 2010, two brown bears arrived to a vast new enclosure on the hill with a stream running through it. The polar bears have now been transferred to Germany and Hungary fro more suitable environments, and if you had seen the three large bears in their old and rickety, small cage in Pistoia you can imagine how much happier they must be now.





Meanwhile, the animals at the zoo continue to produce new attractions. In April, the penguins, which arrived last year, hatched a baby. Born on March 4, Futura, the baby giraffe is already taller than I am! Menelik, the hippo, will turn two in July, but you wouldn't call him a baby either.





‘What is the best thing about the zoo?' I asked my son. He replied, ‘The "move it, move it"; feeding the animals and the shows.' If you have ever seen the movie Madagascar, you will have seen King Julian the Lemur singing ‘I like to move it' (hence our family nickname for the lemurs). The zoo in Pistoia has a cage with two types: the ring-tailed lemur, like King Julian, and the black and white indri lemur. Not only can you see them in the cage but you can even go into the cage with them. No touching is allowed, but a keeper guides you through and gives a short talk about the life and habits of the lemurs, as well as the ‘great gaffe' in the film Madagascar (or maybe the producers did it on purpose?).





With active kids, getting involved is even more exciting. Feeding the animals is one of the highlights. There are farm animals such as goats, pigs, cows and donkeys that can be fed as well as the elephants and giraffes. Three useful tips: Tip #1: take lots of 20 cent coins-the animals should only be given special pellet food that you can buy from the 'bubble gum' machines-the machines only accept 20 cent coins (alternatively get change at the kiosk when you go in; there is usually a good stock). Tip #2: take some plastic cups as the machines just spit out the pellets and a lot of them end up on the floor. Tip # 3: take some wet wipes for afterwards-if you have ever touched a black long and slimy giraffe tongue, you will know why.





On weekends and holidays the zoo offers shows where kids can see animals up close and learn about animal habits and the importance of respect towards animals. This educational work is something that Pistoia Zoo does quite well. There are various shows, including ‘Exotic Domestic Animals' and ‘Birds of Prey.' One of the keepers explains the dangers of keeping exotic animals, such as lizards, and how different birds have evolved to catch their prey. The only drawback for some expats and tourists is that the talks are only in Italian-but you can still get to see the animals up close.





After a hard day studying animals the kids deserve to run around and there is a good-sized playground with activities for all ages.





The zoo organizes birthday parties that focus on understanding and respecting animals and the environment, as well as introducing some of the smaller animals. This is followed by food preparation activities, which of course leads to feeding time! For kids fluent in Italian, there are also weeklong educational summer camps.



How to get there

By car: exit at Pistoia on the highway A11 Florence - Pisa North. Past the tollbooth, then turn left and take the motorway. Exit at Pistoia West, at the first stop sign, turn left and follow the signs for the Pistoia Zoo (it's about 4 km from the highway exit).


By train: Get off at the Pistoia station, along the Florence-Pistoia-Lucca-Viareggio route. Outside the train station, take the local bus line 59 (takes about 15 minutes) or a taxi.



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