Go wild and get up close and personal with the wonderful animals at Canberra’s National Zoo. KIM SMITH reports.

As a Sumatran tiger leaps up and hovers over my head, I let out a shriek and think ‘that’s it, I’m dead meat’. The kingsize kitty is no more than a metre away and by the looks of its big, hungry eyes and watering kisser, it’s ready to rumble. If I was to try to fend it off, where would I begin? I try to recall that ruse Mick Dundee from Crocodile Dundee used to put wild animals under his spell.

A simple curl of the wrist, flick of the fingers and peeled beady eyes is the picture I conjure and consider. Otherwise, make a run for it. Or I could stop being such a chicken-hearted sissy and give the creature what it wants without making such a fuss.

As much as I’d like to think I’m brazenly trekking through pockets of the Indonesian jungle, I’m actually at Canberra’s National Zoo. A fence separates me from the tiger and with no (obvious) desire to turn me into dead meat, it simply wants the chunks of it that are dangling from tongs in my shaking hands.

It can’t hurt you,” Sira Nicholas, the zookeeper assures me, as I drop the tongs – and to the tiger’s distaste, the meat – on the ground for the second time.

His name is Berani which, in Indonesian, stands for ‘brave’. Determined not to be branded the Indonesian equivalent of the opposite, take three is a success as I clink the tongs between the wire fence and the big orange cat manages to gobble my offering – this time before I take a startled jump back. I’m on a ZooVenture tour (one of the most hands-on animal adventure tours in the world), which offers rare and close-up animal experiences.

No kidding, I think as, at the next stop, we’re throwing fish bait at a collection of oriental small-clawed otters from a perch so close, I might as well be flapping around in the drink with them. Although these cheeky little critters – named Happy, Sneezy, Grumpy, Doc, Sleepy, Dopey and Bashful – are lively, they’re not at all frightening like my previous furry friend. It’s easy to see why they, the smallest type of otters in the world, are a favourite of zoo visitors as they motor around with a zesty coordination and lap up the dinner we dish out.

Next up (literally) are the giraffes: Humbekhal, aka ‘Hummer’, and Ketanga, Hummer’s little bro. These guys stand so tall, we feed them some vegetables from an elevated walkway. First impressions are friendly, but as they wrap their chops around the awaiting goodies, I retreat with a shiver.

Gross high-school encounters with them are one thing, but this vile variety of tongue destroys the romantic notion of food exchange faster than a room-clearing burst of flatulence. More than 20 slimy inches long and almost black with pink dots, this is one tongue I didn’t want to see the tip of – or have anywhere near me for that matter. Apparently, the beanstalks still have a fair bit of growing to do, despite being almost four metres tall.

Next, it’s time to hang out with the grizzlies. The European brown bears – Blondie, Dark Girl and Brutus – don’t scare me too much. They actually look quite cuddly. That is, until I’m asked to paint my palm with a mix of Weeties and honey and let one of them lick it off. Not only is this icky, I’m wondering if they’re capable of having a little nibble on more than what’s spread on my hands. They’re actually very gentle, it will feel a bit tingly more than anything,” Nicholas says. An interesting sensation, but once is enough of those sticky shenanigans, I decide.

In between stop-offs, we also manage to snake (read on for deathly encounter with one of them) our way around to check out some other inhabitants of the zoo.

The African lions let out a roar for us and include one handsome chap called Kimba and a little sex kitten called Millie, who was brought in from New Zealand with the (yet-to-be consummated) hope she’d get jiggy with Kimba.

The pumas are pretty fierce and peppy; the black-capped-capuchin monkeys highly entertaining; the eland weird looking; and the Australian natives an absolute pleasure to slap my eyes on, having not seen any since my last visit to the golden soil a couple of years ago.

Among the kangaroos, wombats, little penguins, emus and Tasmanian devils, it is the dingos that fall into my favourite basket, with their surprising friendliness and receptiveness to a good pat.

The aquarium is awash with all walks (swims?) of sea life, including sharks, eels, turtles and plenty of varieties of fish.

Finally, we arrive at the reptiles, where I’m handed the mother of all pythons to cradle in my arms, under strict instructions to keep still. With thoughts of what might happen if I don’t, and wondering why I agree to hold the huge sack of scales in the first place, I freak out and my “ummm” escalates into more definitive “arghh”. The guide quickly and skilfully slips the snake from my unsteady clutch and I say my thanks before scuttling off faster than an in-form Cathy Freeman.

To good old King O’Malley’s I converge for a few rounds of deserved pints. Not many people can say they’ve had this type of hands-on animal experience, can they? A few hours (and pints) later in a phone call to a mate: “Well, I’m lucky to be alive really. Today I wrestled with a tiger, was nearly gobbled by a bear and very nearly strangled by a snake.”

• The ZooVenture tour costs A$95 on weekdays and A$125 on weekends. The price includes all-day zoo entry and a well-informed tour guide. It’s recommended you rock up a few hours before the tour to have a good look around. For details, see www.nationalzoo.com.au.”