Getting a handle on animals is an education for everyone

Zoolab know how to raise a smile
Zoolab know how to raise a smile

Children seem to have the most incredible interest in animals –a trait that begins when they are really young.

From first words like ‘doggy’ and ‘woof woof’, a child’s charming fondness for and fascination with all things furry, fast and frightening never seems get old.

This undisguisable joy on their faces at the sight of anything with eight legs, a shell or a slimey residue is something the animal-handling team from Zoolab know well.

The Grangemouth-based company has been delivering its innovative, educational and fun animal programme to schools from Lands End to John O’Groats for 20 years.

Bringing out boxes containing tarantulas, millipedes, snakes, snails and cockroaches creates a room full of ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’, a lot of squirming ... and a lot of giggles.

Zoolab presenters happily get down on the floor, allowing the children to handle the creatures, filling the gaps with fun and informative facts.

The company’s aim is to bring animals right to the children, to educate them about the creatures all around us, and to teach them respect for the environment.

Diane Mathison CEO of Zoolab said: “We always have new ideas, and we are now the UK leader in supplying animal handling to schools.

“Our team members have to be passionate and they have to be good with the children.

“We are going to excite and stimulate the children, so they have to be able to deal with the children on all levels.

“We have baby, pre-school classes, a sensory workshop, a pre-school programme and a primary programme with mini beasts and a Darwin evolution programme.

“It’s all relevant to the schools because the topics are taken from the curriculum.”

Zoolab began in 1996,

Previously Diane and her now ex-husband ran pet shops and fish tank businesses in the Falkirk area. They branched out to set up a tropical animal base at Free Port shopping village in West Calder.

“We found that it was a bit of a ghost town and schools just didn’t come to visit,” said Diane.

“So we decided that we would go to them.”

Today, Zoolab has 32 members of staff out on the road, covering every corner of the UK and Northern Ireland.

There’s also an additional 20 staff working in-house.

Diane said: “I employ people who are interested in animals and who are passionate about what we do. They will either have to study biology or education, and many of the handlers are educated to degree level.”

Despite the demand from schools for the typical in-class animal sessions, Zoolab has found gainful employment elsewhere.

The team has been involved in therapeutic visits to care homes, animal wrangling, museums, fairs and fetes, libraries and even Butlins.

More specialised sectors of education have also used Zoolab, from those who teach blind children to youngsters with autism.

Diane added: “If animals and children are involved, we’ll probably get a phone call.”

However, Zoolab believes that the power of animals transcends age groups.

Tesco has been among the list of first clients as the animal handlers look to extend into the corporate world.

Work is going on to develop staff training days and relationship-building packages,

Diane added: “Using animals to work with people in the work place can be a real stress buster.

“And bringing in animals can really show you a different side of someone’s personality and get them talking.”

It’s been an adventure - and sometimes a struggle - to get into the education sector, but it’s been work worth doing.

Diane added: “We 
believe we have a responsibility.

“For example, we can be going into a class of three- to five-year-olds and that will teach them something, leave a lasting impression and lead to them having respect for the planet in the future.”