Gillian Thomas visits an award-winning zoo, where children get to know some terrifying-looking creatures, that are really quite nice
A class of seven-year-olds from St Peter's RC primary school in Stockport, Greater Manchester, waits patiently to go into the new Discovery Centre at Chester Zoo. Sara Ruks, one of four resident teachers, says:
"Please sit quietly. If you frighten one of the animals, I'll have to put it back into its enclosure."
The caution has the desired effect on St Peter's. No one wants to risk missing anything, especially if it's alive.
The Discovery Centre is home to birds, amphibians, fish, invertebrates, molluscs, reptiles and mammals, all either housed or trained for close inspection by eager youngsters.
Ms Ruks begins a lesson on life processes by introducing the first inmate, Cusky, a white rat. Its nostrils quivering, the rat appears to be sizing up its admiring audience. Soon they have a chance to become better acquainted as the more intrepid stroke him gently with one finger.
Ms Ruks explains that rats are not unlike humans in that they need to eat and drink to live "Just like us," she says.
Next she brings out two hissing cockroaches. They seem repulsive with their spindly black legs and shiny mahogany casing but many of the children are now keen to handle them. "They are sticky and hard," one boy says proudly.
Two Java doves begin to coo enthusiastically during the lesson. "It's the mating season and the female is getting ready to lay eggs," Ms Ruks explains.
Other residents include cichids and Mexican half-beaks, both are types of fish, giant African snails with bodies about six inches long and an Argentinian horn frog, which the children view through a transparent tray as it remains cradled in damp moss. A millipede from Ghana and some young stick insects are too delicate to be touched too.
After their handling session, the children spend about two hours exploring the zoo itself. They particularly enjoy swinging from a bar to see how acrobatic they are compared with the chimps, and watching two fierce-looking condors in an open-air aviary being fed dead chickens and rabbits. Even in the wild, condors only scavenge dead meat, one of the zoo's presenters explains.
Prsentations take place at various enclosures throughout the day, mainly at feeding times.
Presenters are also on hand in the Twilight Zone, where 220 bats fly free in near darkness. Night-vision viewers are available to help visitors observe the bats as they fly around the shrubbery.
Another new feature, which opened this summer, is a humid walk-through tropical forest that is home to eight endangered species of birds, including St Lucia parrots, of which only 150 exist in the wild. Several pairs of birds here have already begun nesting.
The zoo's priority is conservation. Nearly half of its 531 species are endangered. Most are breeding successfully and some are part of programmes aimed at settling them in the wild.
"At all levels, our education programme is very much geared to the zoo's conservation role," says Stephen McKeown, head of education. "In the Discovery Centre, even the youngest children can be introduced to environmental issues by seeing at close quarters what the animals need to thrive, especially in terms of their food and the right habitat.
"We don't, for instance, let children handle our frog because he needs to remain protected by damp moss. But they see how he is perfectly camouflaged in it by the colour of his skin."
Chester is building up reputation as one of the country's finest zoos. In the past two years it has won awards including Which? magazine's Best Zoo 2000, Zoo of the Year in 1998 and 1999 and has also won the Zoo Federation's Project Award for its Dinosar Experience.
Chester Zoo, Caughall Road, Upton-by-Chester, Chester CH2 1LH. Tel 01244 650205; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Admission: pound;4.50, teaching session 50p. Adults free 1:5 primary, 1:10 secondary.
Bookable, 50-minute teaching session includes follow-up notes and observation work at the zoo. Ten topics for KS1-2, including award-winning Dinosaur Experience, Minibeasts and Colouring and Camouflage. Five KS3-4 topics. Also lectures and workshops for A-level biology students. Equipment for advanced work includes a weather station and a video camera to study animals closely. November to February are the quietest months to visit.
The zoo's interactive CD-Rom costs pound;9.99.