STUDENTS are learning how to handle exotic creatures thanks to a partnership between a college and a wildlife rescue centre.
As well as two iguanas nicknamed Eddie and Edith, the new animal care centre at Hartpury College, Gloucestershire, is home to tarantulas, praying mantises, a monitor lizard, and assorted snakes.
All these animals are abandoned or escaped pets, picked up in the surrounding countryside and towns by Gloucestershire Wildlife Rescue Centre.
The charity, based at the college, takes around 3,500 animals a year - from badgers in road accidents, to swans caught in fishing lines. Around 75 per cent are released back into the wild.
Through the partnership between rescue centre and college, students taking courses in animal care learn about wildlife through hands-on experience.
In recent years Hartpury has seen a steady increase in the numbers of young students enrolling on the national diploma and degree courses in animal care.
Former RSPCA man Alan Brockbank, who manages the wildlife rescue centre and lectures at the college, says TV shows like Animal Hospital and Vets in Practice are a big influence.
But students are not always prepared for the job's harsh realities.
"We try and emphasise that although you might see it on the television, you can't smell or touch anything on the television," he says. "All animals have to be fed and cleaned out. It's not a case of sitting cuddling them. You have to look after them properly."
Students help keep the wildlife rescue centre going. "They're an absolute god-send," he says. "We couldn't survive without them."
The partnership between college and wildlife rescue centre is a symbiotic relationship as good as anything found in the wild.
A decade ago Alan Brockbank and his wife Louise were running a wildlife rescue service from their Gloucestershire bungalow.
"Initially the most important thing fo us was to rehabilitate the animals back out into the wild. To do that we needed a wood where we could fix up pens and do it properly," he says.
They were approached by the college, which offered five acres of woodland and veterinary facilities. In return, Alan Brockbank gave lectures, initially for just a few hours a week.
Now he lectures more or less full time, in wildlife and rehabilitation, ecology, animal behaviour and wildlife habitat management.
"I made the mistake of every time I asked for something else, I take on another module. It's the price I pay," he laughs.
The animal care centre at Hartpury is in a new building, next door to a veterinary centre. In one room Brockbank teaches his students the correct way to handle animals. There are even birds of prey available for practice. "If you've got an injured animal, the last thing you want is for a student to walk in and get bitten."
They also explain how to handle animals hurt in road accidents. "Most students who finish this course will be able to walk up to a swan, grab hold of it and carry it away. And how many people would know how to handle a badger in a road accident?"
The rescue centre is on call 24 hours a day. "It can be the range of animals. No matter what the animal, we'll get the call.
"I've been out to snakes which aren't found in this country, where someone's found one in their garden. We've had rare seabirds like gannets and petrels, bird-eating spiders, otters."
Degree students get to go out on call, which can often be a test of commitment.
"It might have taken you two hours on a freezing winter's night to rescue the animal, only to find the vet then has to put it down. But at least you're alleviating the suffering.
"There's a lot of heartache and a lot of really long hours. The students find out that you've got to be dedicated to go into the animal care industry."
For further information contact Alan Brockbank at Hartpury College, Gloucestershire, telephone 01452 700283.