Ricky the rockhopper penguin may be a member of an endangered species, but he is becoming something of a celebrity at London Zoo. Having just spent the morning at the zoo myself, I can vouch for the fact that this yellow-browed limelight-seeker can really draw the crowds.
But Ricky is doing much more than providing photo opportunities for his adoring fans. He's a real success story for the zoo, which is on a serious mission to make its customers – particularly the younger ones – aware of urgent conservation issues.
The Zoological Society of London has stepped up its campaigning work in world wildlife and habitat protection in recent years (take, for example, it's current fundraising efforts to save the Sumatran tiger), and good old Ricky provides a friendly face for an important message.
Children are able to follow Ricky on Facebook, they can hear him sing with a rock band, and now they can even help look after him by becoming a Junior Keeper For a Day.
The latter programme has to be one of the best ways to get children involved and educated in all things connected with wildlife. These special experience days, which were introduced after the roaring success of the zoo's adult Keeper for the Day schemes, mean that children aged between 11 and 15 years can now learn, first-hand, what really goes on behind the scenes at Regent's Park.
The animals and activities that are covered in the programme vary according to the zoo's schedule. But to give you a flavour of what to expect, I joined an adults' group, where I fed two Sumatran tigers, made a giraffe's bed, threw live worms into a pool of piranhas, washed out the penguin pool, cuddled a lemur, and got covered in squashed banana by a very playful golden lion tamarin.
The experience is an expensive one – at £170, it is not something you'd sign the kids up for lightly. But if your child is a very keen animal lover, or has expressed a real interest in becoming a vet or a zookeeper, I would fully recommend it.
A word of warning, however: the places on this programme are very limited and get booked up quickly – 2011 is now pretty much a sell out – but from tomorrow, the zoo will be taking bookings for dates in 2012.
To find out more about the scheme, go to zsl.org.keeperforaday or call 0844 2251826 for details, and your children could soon be doing their bit – while getting down and dirty with some of the biggest stars of the animal kingdom.