The keepers at Edinburgh Zoo are bristling with pride and not without reason. In the next few weeks the long-awaited Budongo Trail enclosure opens, providing visitors with a unique insight into the life of chimpanzees.
Any small enclosed spaces or bitter smell of too many animals living too close together are long gone, if they ever did exist at Edinburgh's zoo. An impressive building that looks as if it could win architectural prizes and an enormous tangle of outdoor space now house the colony of 11 chimps. Sitting next to it is the new Rainbow Landings, a walk-through rainbow lorikeet habitat, and just beyond is Living Links, built in partnership with St Andrew's University to research squirrel monkeys and other primates.
Edinburgh Zoo, the most visited fee-charging, privately owned attraction in Scotland, is living up to its reputation as an outstanding centre for zoological research, education and innovation.
Budongo cost pound;5.6 million, but the money hasn't just gone on bricks and mortar. Half a million of it has been spent on interpretation; in other words, education. Pupils of all ages can study Uganda, the rainforest, chimpanzee behaviour and issues concerning conservation.
But while the zoo has been busy building a new educational treat for schools in its vicinity, it has also been revisiting its whole education programme. Over the next 12 months the 250,000 pupils who visit the zoo annually will benefit from a new programme that will fit the four capacities of A Curriculum for Excellence.
"It is the first major change to our education programme in 10 years," says Stephen Woollard, education and interpretation officer. "We thought carefully about what we could offer and decided to do away with the slides, worksheets and such. Our unique resource is our animals, so they are going to be at the heart of our provision."
Pupils will be seeing more of Mr Woollard's beloved Madagascan hissing cockroaches, snakes, rats, and the ever-popular Bella the cockatoo and Dillon the armadillo.
There are 14 education officers to deliver the programme at the zoo and a newly expanded outreach programme will allow schools to link with a school in the Falkland Islands through a domestic wildlife programme. This will culminate in a school-linking day at the zoo with a live link to the Falklands.
The zoo is also keen to strengthen ties with teachers, and is looking to increase numbers of its teachers club. "We would like more secondary teachers to be part of it. Mostly they will be scientists but we want to encourage a cross-curricular mix," adds Mr Woollard.
To be a member will cost pound;30 per teacher, but will allow unlimited access to the zoo for the year.
The zoo is also planning more open days for teachers to witness its resources and see what areas of the programme may suit their classes.
"We can do anything," says Mr Woollard. "There is a section in our programme called Whatever You Want. I had one teacher who wanted to bring his class, but they were studying Christopher Columbus. I did a section on rats travelling on ships; the animals Columbus would have seen when he arrived; and elements of the rainforest. We can cater for lots of topics, not just science. We can do history, languages, expressive arts, leisure and more."
The zoo is also trying innovative ways to keep the costs down for schools, especially since it lost its grant from Edinburgh Council this year. A visit currently costs pound;4 a head for Edinburgh and Midlothian pupils and pound;5 for others. One project is trying to link independent schools with others in deprived areas so that they can share the cost. Another is trying to raise funds for buses to get pupils to the zoo.
The activity is all part of the zoo's strategy for 2007-13, which aims to engage as many children and young people as possible in learning. With Budongo, an education centre full of animals, insects and birds and a programme for 2009 that will link the zoo with Darwin's bicentenary celebrations, Edinburgh Zoo has a lot of education to offer.