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Oooh, aaah, it's a friendly tarantula

Children are more likely to understand the conservation message, if they've seen it at first hand, reports Laurence Alster.

One way of assessing the appeal of a venue or occasion is by gauging the "ah" response. So it's the large number of "ah"s at Woburn Safari Park, a few "eugh"s notwithstanding, that make it a fantastic attraction for children.

Here, whenever possible, it's up close and personal. The closer it gets, the more youngsters love it. Even when the creatures are scaly, slithery or plain creepy, children are enthralled.

In the education centre, where animal trophies impounded by customs officers at Heathrow airport are hung about the room, children are invited to stroke Harriet the tarantula, pal up with a giant millipede named Leonard or caress a black Mexican king snake. Everyone gets the message that all forms of life, however weird or unlovely, deserve respect.

Throughout the 300 acres of Woburn Park, any opportunity for safe and careful contact with the animals is offered and quickly taken. It is the kind of hands-on experience most children clearly love. Not least when they feed nectar to rainbow-coloured lorikeets perched on an arm, shoulder or head. Or when the keeper calls for volunteers to serve carrots to Jade and Murphy, two black and white ruffed lemurs from Madagascar.

Penguins waddling up and snaffling fish from young hands have onlookers cooing with delight. Watching the concentration on the faces of children trying to feed over-eager goats of all sizes is a joy.

From the safety of a coach, a white rhinoceros at close quarters is an awesome sight. Imagine nearly four tons of armoured animal ambling by your vehicle.

Zebras graze alongside enormous buffalo. A hippo yawns cavernously as it rises from a muddy pool. Elsewhere, Bengal tigers patrol the fencing that keeps them from a pack of timber wolves.

Kept well behind electronically-controlled gates lions laze in the sun, the biggest male having pulled rank for the shadiest spot. Safely distant, giraffes lord it over both humans and animals.

Everywhere there are wardens, keeping an eye not only on the animals but also on visitors who might be tempted to open a car window in an unsafe place.

In keeping with the park's look and learn principles, visitors are fed information about its residents, sometimes by keepers but more often through display panels using simple language to describe the animals, their habitat and how they adapt to their surroundings. One panel is captioned:

"An adult boa constrictor can stretch its mouth so wide it can swallow a wild pig! How far can you stretch your mouth?" Pessing a button on a panel on South American wildlife invites users to imitate a voice which says: "Hey, watch out for piranha!" in Spanish.

But it is the regular animal shows which attract the most visitors, in particular those featuring the sea lions and elephants. While the first are applauded for their astonishing gymnastics, crowds love the elephants because they are big, strong but also gentle and, when necessary, even dainty. After using his trunk to shift huge wooden logs, Raja, the biggest of three, deftly picks a 50p coin from a youngster's hand.

The show includes a lot of information about diet, behaviour and prospects for the species. It's hard not to smile when you see an animal as heavy as a truck giving its keeper a leg up on to its back.

All together now: "Aaaah."

Woburn Safari and Leisure Park, Woburn Park, Bedfordshire MK17 9QN. Tel 01523 290991. Education officer: Wendy Houseman; e-mail: Open daily March-October, 10am-5pm. November-February weekends only. Admission: pupils pound;6, teachers free 1:10. Bookings must be made at least two week in advance. Free visits for teachers. Free activity packs for all ages.

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