Days out: Marwell is a hands-on zoo. By Emma Haughton
Marwell Zoological Park, currently celebrating its 25th birthday, is the kind of place where you expect to find the likes of Johnny Morris or Dr Doolittle lurking. With more than 150 different species set in 100 acres of Hampshire countryside, you feel you're not so much outside looking in, as seeing life alongside the animals.

A registered charity, Marwell puts the emphasis squarely on conserving endangered species. One of its aims is to educate, and the animal-handling sessions do just that, as well as being a great hit with the kids. The talk on how the zoo is trying to help rare animals is enlivened by a chance to handle the gruesome products of the skin trade - the fur of a snow leopard, a dead turtle, handbags made from crocodiles' and lizards' skins. Children also get hands-on experience with live specimens - rats, toads, stick insects, even an African python.

The Encounter Village, a farmyard area where kids can meet domestic animals, has plenty to amuse. They can pretend to be rabbits in an underground burrow, stroke sheep and goats, coo over guinea-pigs, chicks and chinchillas. Tropical World, on the other hand, is full of things you wouldn't want to get close to: Goliath bird-eating spiders, piranhas, giant African land snails, enormous millipedes, crocodiles, and a colony of leaf-cutting ants.

Perhaps best of all is just to wander round the park and marvel at all the old favourites: ponderous pygmy hippos; lanky, crazy-paved giraffes; the surreal dynamics of the kangaroos; a herd of zebras, looking outdated in their funky stripes. With so many animals threatened in their natural habitat, Marwell seems not so much a zoo, more a modern version of Noah's ark.

The visitors

Marie Postles, an art teacher, and her three children, Hector, nine, Louis, seven, and Oscar, four.

Marie: I really like the hands-on talk by the education department, and the fact that they are trying to make children and adults aware of the consequences of buying animal goods. I also like the farm area. Even though we see lots of animals in fields, you don't often get the chance to stroke a sheep or pet a pig.

You get a great feeling of space at Marwell. It doesn't feel too crowded, and the animals seem to have plenty of room. They look well, which is such a relief; in some zoos they look so sad. It's reasonably priced, the staff are very friendly and helpful, and nothing is too commercial; apart from lollies, the kids were not asking for things all day.

Hector: The camel ride was fun, all lollopy. The tropical house was brilliant, full of tarantulas, scorpions, huge frogs, loads of cool biting things and stuff that was really lethal. My favourite animal was the jaguar - it's black, and I really liked the way it walks. The best thing, though, was holding the rats. I've got a dog, but I like rats; I really want one for my birthday. I could keep it in a cage in my room and feed it and clean it out every day, but Mum says no.

Louis: My favourite bit was handling things. The snow lion was dead, but it was really quite nice feeling its skin. The snake wrapped itself around my arm. The rhinoceroses were the best. They looked like their skin is all dry, like an elephant, and they have these big horns at the front. The penguins were good, too. I saw them swim under the water, like fish.

Oscar: My favourites were the kangaroos, because they jump, but I also liked the penguins that swim underwater. I can't do that. I liked the chicks and the tortoises on the farm bit, and the rabbit burrow where you can crawl along and look through the windows. I touched a snake and a rat, and a stick insect. The stick insect felt all yucky. I stroked a toad, too, which was all slimy. I liked the rat best. It went all down my T-shirt. I really liked the camel ride, too, it felt all high and good.

The deal

Getting there: Marwell (01962 777407) is between Winchester and Southampton, with access from the M3 and M27.

Opening times: 10am-6pm in summer (4pm in winter). Last entry 11/2 hours before closing.

Admission: adults pounds 7.50, children (3-14) pounds 5.50. A family ticket (two adults and two children) costs pounds 24. Animal handling costs 80p extra per person, with sessions run during weekends and some school holidays and weekends. A single ticket for the miniature railway costs 60p, while a camel ride is 50p. The excellent, child-friendly guide book costs pounds 2.

Facilities: The Treetops Restaurant serves sandwiches from pounds 2.25, and hot meals from pounds 4.75 for adults and pounds 3.25 for children. There are several picnic areas and kiosks selling snacks. A miniature railway runs right through the park, with a free road train running during public holidays and from May to October. The large gift shop is open all year round. All three toilet blocks have baby-changing facilities.

Access: a number of wheelchairs and pushchairs are available on loan from the gate. Access to most of Marwell's attractions is good, and all toilets in the park include facilities for the disabled.