I'm holding one of the ugliest animals I've ever seen. It has holes for ears, a fat tongue and rough, thorny skin that feels like dried toast. Yet, despite its appearance, a bearded dragon known as Mr Vernon Schofield has won my heart with its gentle personality.
I'm visiting a pet care club, run by Sally Hibbard of Oracle Education, who offers pet parties and holiday workshops for children aged 6 and up. There are 16 children here today; many have been before, and the older children are made special assistants so they don't feel the age gap too much. The clubs offer people an "animal fix" in between the holiday programmes.
Sally has cut up carrots and grapes to give to Mr Schofield and his friend Biscotti, but the children at today's Pet Care Club are more keen on the locusts and mealworms on the menu.
"Feed them bugs!" they chant, until a locust is put in between the two bearded dragons. It's like a spaghetti western duel as both bearded dragons lick their lips and Mr Schofield is first to lunge at the insect, swallowing the prize.
Apart from having to feed them live insects, bearded dragons - a type of lizard - make great pets Sally assures me. They live for around the same time as a dog: 12 years.
We're all sitting around a long table, surrounded by tanks filled with fire bellied newts, leopard geckos and Mexican axolotls, as well as tortoises and turtles. Another room is filled with rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas and birds.
During the introductions, I lose track of how many pets the children have at home. One boy has two chinchillas, three cats, one chicken, a couple of dogs, a mouse and some ducks who sometimes visit: these children love animals.
As well as meeting many different animals, the children take turns setting up a cage to learn about care and maintenance, and have a craft activity with bug stamps.
During the afternoon, we're also introduced to two baby Hermann's tortoises - Gerald and his sister Tortollini. The children describe them as "little fridge magnets"; they can live for around 75 years - giving new meaning to the slogan "a pet is for life".
A blue-tongued lizard comes to the table next and is passed around for all the children to hold. One child says he can feel its heartbeat in his hands, while another says it feels like her mum's leather handbag.
We're introduced to a few more animals until we're warned about water dragons - a bit moody, apparently.
The rest of the animals have been so lovely I go along with Sally's request not to scream or panic if the water dragon bolts for any of us.
As soon as the water dragon is brought to the table, a paranoid cage fighter ready to pounce at any moment, I forget the warning and scream as it lunges at me. Poop is its name, which it does on the table in front of me until, at last, it's taken away.
Thankfully the "fluffy animal" section is next. The children settle in with cute bunnies and guinea pigs, one aptly described as a moving toupee. They brush and feed them as Sally answers their questions.
"No, I won't rename him Big Bum," she says patiently to a child, in between telling me she studied zoology before owning pet stores, one with a classroom. "I liked the education element so much more than selling the pets, so, to me, I still own a pet store, just one where you never have to sell your pets."
As an adult, I'm ashamed to say, I wouldn't call myself an "animal person". As a young child, it was different. I remember wanting to be a vet and pulling a wagon around the neighbourhood looking for lost pets to rescue.
To my surprise, playing with the animals at the pet care club made me reconnect to that little girl who loved animals. My children might even wear me down enough to buy them that fluffy bunny they keep making me visit at the pet store... maybe, just maybe.
Join the club
Oracle Animal Education Centre is at 22c Parkway Drive, Mairangi Bay. The next pet care club is on Saturday November 3, 1-4pm, cost is $49 per child ($45 for siblings). See hippo.co.nz, ph (09) 376 2024. Look out for their pet parties too.