Visiting the animal kingdom

Diving with a sperm whale in Dominica
In Dominica, diving with the whales is very closely controlled to avoid scaring them away.

Benedict George rounds up some unusual nature holidays, from diving with sperm whales to a sanctuary for feral cats.

Hunting giant squid

The largest toothed predator in the world turns out to be a pleasant holiday companion, says Richard Water in the Financial Times. A sperm whale could fit a Fiat Uno in the cavity in its head; it’s the loudest animal in the world, communicating across 35-mile stretches using clicks; and each day it dives the distance from Everest’s summit to its base camp in search of giant squid, part of the ton of food it has to eat every day.

In Dominica, diving with the whales is closely controlled to avoid scaring them away. If you get a permit before the annual maximum of ten are sold out – and you’re willing to part with your share of $3,000 – you and five other divers can try to see the whales up close.

There is no guarantee you’ll find any on the day, however. On his trip, Water thought they were gentle giants: “the teeth could easily sever me in two but my only sensation is something akin to empathy.” No wonder. “Their spindle cells, which neurologists believe govern love and compassion, are even denser and more complex than our own.”

Hang out with hundreds of Hawaiian cats

It all started when a flock of endangered Hawaiian petrels was discovered in the mountains of Lanai island, says Jay Jones in the Los Angeles Times. The birds built their nests on the ground, making them easy targets for local feral cats.

The authorities prepared to round up the cats and kill them – until local cat enthusiast Kathy “Kat” Carroll stepped in. Initially, back in 2009, she housed 100 cats in an empty stable. Today, she has 620 living on half an acre of land. Some are tame enough to humour cat lovers from around the world by allowing themselves to be cuddled in return for treats. But 370 are still classed as feral. A much-needed new enclosure will be completed this year.

In total, it takes half a million dollars a year to keep the sanctuary running. Carroll raises money for the sanctuary by selling T-shirts and cat treats at her husband’s art gallery. Her husband paints the cats and gives the sanctuary 10% of the money he makes selling the pictures.

Some visitors make day trips, while others stay for weeks, soaking up the feline atmosphere. Jones asked them about the sanctuary’s appeal. “I don’t see any cats here that fight, which tells me they are happy,” said Kristen Schroder from Alabama. “Instead of just euthanising them… they take care of them.” If you get tired of palm-lined beaches and decide you’re missing your cat, you have plenty to see here.

Pig petting and llama farms

For a truly rustic experience, you can pay to sleep in a barn at Wolfseggstall organic farm in Austria. But it won’t go down well with arachnophobic kids, says Gemma Bowes in The Guardian. “The farmer pulled back the doors to reveal a tractor surrounded by mounds of hay and cobwebs, so many cobwebs that they hung down in grassy clumps like Spanish moss.” If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, there are plenty of mammals around the farm, not to mention the odd spider-less bed for city types.

Pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs, hens and ponies all put in an appearance for cleaning, feeding and petting by guests. The region is a hotspot for cute animals in general. Up in the Kaiser mountains, which overlook Wolfseggstall and are said to resemble the profiles of medieval kings, there is Lamahof, a llama farm.

Tourists take llamas for hikes, while the obliging quadrupeds carry their rucksacks. When she gave it a try, Bowes found that “the forested foothills … didn’t look so different from a Peruvian hilltop that misty day”.


Try your hand at taxidermy

The animals you holiday with don’t have to be abroad—and they don’t have to be alive. The Museum of London is offering an £85 taxidermy masterclass on 15 June. Artist Elle Kaye will guide participants, who must be at least 18 years old, through the process of stuffing a mouse in a four-hour session. The museum warns that the experience “is not for the faint-hearted”. It also asks politely: “Please do not bring any dead animals with you to the class.” Tickets include entry to the Beasts of London exhibition, tracing the city’s history through animals, which runs until next January.