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Spending a muggy Hunter Valley afternoon at the zoo with worms wriggling on my lap and squirrel monkeys climbing all over me is one of the best things I’ve done in the Hunter.

Australian Wildlife Parks, the largest privately-owned wildlife park group in Australia, acquired Hunter Wildlife Park at Nulkaba in 2021. Since then Managing Director Chad Staples has built on the wonderful wildlife park it already was.

The animal encounters are one aspect of the zoo that Zookeeper Chad (as he’s widely known on social media) has expanded at the zoo which now includes lions, manned wolves and capybaras in addition to the meerkat, squirrel monkeys and lemur encounters that were already on offer at the zoo.

“What we always try to do is promote up close, personal encounters that are positive for both animals and people and you just don’t walk away from those moments without being changed forever,” said Chad.

He’s right, the moments you spend with any animals available for up-close encounters at Hunter Valley Wildlife Park create memories that will last a lifetime.

My Mum and I decided to do an animal encounter with the squirrel monkeys. About 25cm long with a tail about double the length of that, squirrel monkeys originate from South America where there have been reports of the monkeys living in huge groups of up to 300 with smaller family groups within that larger group. 

Hunter Valley Wildlife Park has 17 squirrel monkeys in a huge enclosure and two very new baby squirrel monkeys. Zookeeper Chad was right when he said they were a “blend of curiosity and mischief”!

When you book an encounter you’re given time to meet the zookeeper at a meeting point at the zoo. Our zookeeper Daisy took my Mum and I over to the enclosure where the monkeys are and they were immediately excited jumping from the trees to the side of their enclosure and to the door where we walked in.

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A hoard of monkeys met us at the gate to the enclosure as excited as kids about to be handed a bag of lollies.

Daisy took us into the first part of their enclosure and gave us a pipe with holes cut into it filled with all sorts of treats – live worms, oranges, currents, pear, popcorn and all sorts of other things the monkeys love.

Then we went in and sat on the park bench and down came the cutest monkeys I’ve ever seen.

The monkeys were so human-like – their four feet were so soft and almost cold to the touch, they had nails on all of their five fingers and their eyes were incredible. When the monkeys looked at you it felt like they looked right into your eyes and deep into your soul. Incredible.

It only took about two minutes for us to have our laps covered in worms and fruit and the monkeys were jumping all over us, hanging on our legs, looking down our shirts and jumping from us into trees and from trees into our laps. And it wasn’t just one or two of them, it felt like all 17 squirrel monkeys jumped onto our lap all at once.

Among the monkeys were two mums with their babies on their backs. One was born on December 18, the other was born in early January, and they were the cutest.

We spent half an hour with the monkeys and I couldn’t stop smiling. It was such a wholesome, beautiful experience.

Zookeeper Chad said the animal encounters are something you’ll remember forever, but he also hopes everyone walks away from the zoo having learnt the importance of the animals they have met and what Hunter Valley Wildlife Park is doing to help keep the species alive.

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many animals across the globe that are doing well thanks to human interaction and because of where you find squirrel monkeys, in lush rainforest areas, they are under increasing pressure.

“It means the breeding programs like the ones at the Hunter Valley are more and more important,” Zookeeper Chad said.

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