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Animal magic

Do the millipede Mexican wave, cope with your phobias, or come face-to-face with the most dangerous animal in the world. Jessie Anderson finds a company offering this, and more, while learning about the natural world

Cockroaches, scorpions and spiders, including a "very gentle" tarantula, are all popular with youngsters, as are snakes such as a python and a boa, and a large collection of birds, from the homely chicken to owls and falcons, to Australian exotica like rosellas and cockatoos.

Zoo Educators is bringing the natural world into classrooms all over Britain. Based in Ulverston in South Cumbria, and run by husband and wife team, Terry and Karin Bowes, they have a vast menagerie of small animals: from rats to rabbits, geckos to guinea pigs and hedgehogs.

Terry has a zoology degree and is a qualified teacher; Karin has years of experience as a nursery nurse and with special needs children. They, or a member of their staff, will take any of their creatures to a visitor attraction or school anywhere in the country. Talks and worksheets can be tailored to a school's specific requirements. Primarily linked to key stages 1 to 4, visits can be made to pre-school groups and senior secondary classes.

Young children, having had hands-on experience of a millipede, will happily do a millipede Mexican wave round the classroom. Senior students are more likely to be involved in discussions on animal genetics, or even a debate on evolution versus creation. "I love it when they say 'You've made me think'," says Terry.

Subjects covered for key stages 1 to 4, with particular links to maths, English, art and the sciences, can include hunters and hunted, colour and camouflage, rivers and riverways, reproduction, endangered species and conservation. "Realistic conservation has to be the big thing," says Terry.

He gets the youngsters' attention by asking them to name the most dangerous animal in the world. Then he produces a mirror and invites them to look into it - a point has been effectively made.

All the visiting creatures are what Karin calls "bomb-proof" so that children can handle them in perfect confidence and safety. Giving children hands-on experience is a successful way of getting rid of phobias which often linger on into secondary school. Arachnophobia, for instance, has usually been passed on by parents, Karin says. "But you can get rid of it before it takes hold by asking youngsters to count a spider's legs. Then it becomes simply a counting exercise, instead of something scary."

Children are particularly attracted to baby animals so, in a lesson on rats, very small ones will be introduced initially, eliciting the usual reaction: "Isn't it cute; is it a mouse?" "No, it's a rat. "Ooh, I don't like rats." This is followed by a rapid rearrangement of preconceptions.

"We make a huge difference to attitudes," Terry says.

Knowledge of animals and their care varies widely in different areas.

Country children are, of course, familiar with domestic animals; town children often a great deal less so. One town class, asked where pork came from, volunteered Sainsbury's. Further helpful probing: "What do you get from a pig?" produced some bizarre suggestions, including milk and eggs.

But town and country children are often equally ignorant about exotics, so firm emphasis is placed on the care of such creatures. Children will sometimes be so enchanted by their first sight of a python or an Australian bearded dragon that they immediately announce their intention of buying one as a pet.

This is the moment for Terry or Karin to talk about suitable accommodation and care and to ask what the child knows about taking responsibility for the animal. He or she is given a care sheet and told to go away and gather more information. It can prove a salutary cooling-off period for the instant enthusiast.

Children's increased awareness of the world around them is a major spin-off from a Zoo Educators visit. At an after-school club Terry removes a slice of turf from the playing field, revealing seven or so different species beneath. "If I had realised there was so much alive there I wouldn't have stood on it," was one child's reaction.

Tel: 01768 889121; email: Factsheets, worksheets and teachers' packs are available prior to a school visit

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