When you are in touching distance of a lion, you certainly get an appreciation of their size, power and awesomeness. You also appreciate that you have a layer of protection between you and them. Such is the case with the glass viewing tunnel in the lion exhibit at the Zoo Santo Inacio. The tunnel allows visitors to get up close to the lions in a way that isn’t possible with the usual style of exhibits. It contributes to the lions being the favourite exhibit in the zoo.
The lions in the exhibit are Asiatic lions, a sub-species that is endangered with less than 500 animals surviving in the wild. They are somewhat smaller than African lions with females weighing 110 to 120 kilograms and males between 160 to 190 kilograms. The lions seemed happy in their enclosure and the females were running around playing with cardboard boxes, like overgrown house cats. Meanwhile, the male lazed in the shade.
The zoo is on the outskirts of Gaia (opposite bank of the Douro River from Porto) and is not directly accessible by the Metro subway system. However, the zoo provides a very helpful free shuttle service (between 1st April and 31 October) that gets you to the zoo with ease.
The shuttle departs from the bus turnaround at the Porto Cathedral (just up the road from the Sao Bento subway station). Opposite the Cathedral, on the street corner, is a small tour company that has a zoo advertisement board outside (their staff all wear blue shirts and stand outside). You can buy your zoo tickets at this tour company and they will notify the shuttle driver that you are waiting. The scheduled shuttle departures are at 10.00, 11.00, 12.00 and 1400. The shuttle takes about 15 minutes to reach the zoo.
There is plenty to see at the zoo. We spent almost 5 hours there and could have been there longer had we attended more of the demonstrations that are scheduled through the day. Unfortunately, our 10am shuttle was running late, so we missed the 10.30am lion feeding. The 11.00am birds of prey demonstration was well done. The trainer brought out several birds, including a Bald Eagle, a vulture and an owl. All of the birds flew freely during the demo. We couldn’t understand the trainer’s Portuguese commentary, but the demonstration was enjoyable, nonetheless. There are other feeding times and demonstrations spread throughout the day (they are listed on the map handout brochure and on the zoo’s website).
Most of the animals seemed happy and engaged, and the enclosures were clean. It was also nice to see several species mixed together in the same enclosure, such as the African Savanna exhibit (zebra, giraffe, rhino, etc.), as that is how they would be found in the wild.
Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the African Wild Dogs, as they seemed to be pacing back and forth with little in the enclosure to stimulate them. But that was the exception to the norm.
The Zoo Restaurant provided a reasonable lunch. There were many groups of children at the zoo during our visit, but all of the groups were catered for in a separate section of the restaurant. That meant that only small family groups had to line up in the self-service section. Food choices included salads, sandwiches, soup, pies and some rice and pasta dishes.
There were still plenty of other animals to see, including monkeys and tamarins, reptiles, birds and mammals.
The return shuttle service is scheduled for 1430, 1600, 1700 and 1800 (the zoo closes at 1900). But we were ready to leave about 1515 and let the staff at the exit booth know. They called the shuttle driver and he was there to pick us up within 15 minutes.
We had an enjoyable visit and can recommend the zoo, particularly to families with young children. Don’t go on a rainy day though – most exhibits are in the open air.