An iguana looks like a small dragon yet instead of being scaly it feels like fine suede under your stroking fingertips. This is just one of the supervised close encounters available on a guided "touch tour" at the Lakeland Wildlife Oasis. Entirely under cover it is half zoo, half museum, and is more than a collection of creatures. Rather, it uses them in combination with inter-active exhibits to tell the story of evolution and the development of life on earth.
The centre is set out in the principal animal groups, starting with simple creatures and ending with birds and mammals. A "talking" crab introduces the arthropods and an interactive computer programme supports the starfish display with a real starfish to touch. Sorting through the collection of seashells and comparing them with specimens on display is a pleasure; fossil rubbings are not only fun to do but a reminder of extinct ancestors.
The butterfly hall is home to more than brilliantly coloured free-flying butterflies. Those on the touch tour can hold a tarantula or a giant millipede (ticklish) in the palm of the hand. A metre-long mechanical millipede demonstrates with something like a Mexican wave how the legs actually function. Here too, those who keep very quiet can hear a tree "singing" and try to spot the black crickets in its foliage. Butterflies may be seen emerging from a line of suspended pupae but sharp eyes are needed to spot and collect up the stick insects, as fine as cotton thread when their case is opened during the touch tour.
In the section on vertebrates, with open pool as well as fish tanks, attention tends to be drawn away from the fish, which include the curious Nile bichir, to the food pyramid and the chance to lift a sackful of plankton and discover how much is required to produce one fish finger - 28 kilos! Otto, the four-foot iguana, lives in an open pen in the tropical hall with smaller versions, tiny tortoises and chameleons. Red-bellied marmosets can be seen from a safe distance performing athletic tricks and brown rats in their own location provide the chance to see a birth or how mammals feed their babies.
The colony of giant Indian fruit bats is not confined but, having been a bit slow that particular morning to move to their daytime roost, did just that in an orderly manner when politely reminded by the guide.
Here you can design your own mammal in a computer gameas well as play Bugatelle, which spins a ping-pong ball round a maze and try out the "whale-weigh" station which asks how many people it takes to balance a blue whale.
The Evolution Trail is simply two pages of printed illustrations which children complete with coloured ink and rubber stamps, depicting such things as a spider or a selection of shells in the appropriate section, as they move through the centre. This is available to schools half price at 10p as well as a school pack with 20p worksheets, but Oasis will provide a copy for schools to duplicate.
One exhibit is so mesmerising that visitors are unwilling to move on: the tree cutting ants. Spot a green object the size of a pinhead which, borne by an ant, moves from a batch of leaves up and along a rope to the ants' nest, a sight which can well transfix you until all the leaves are stripped and transported.
Lakeland Wildlife Oasis, Hale, Milnthorpe, Cumbria LA 7 7BW. Tel: 015395 63027. Discount rates for pre-booked parties