Donna Penrod has a new friend.

He's an old fellow, weathered and brown. He's also surprisingly shy, considering his size.He's a giant turtle and he represents a new experience for Penrod, who on Saturday got a chance to look him over.

Penrod is blind. And she has never before had the freedom to touch and, in fact, explore the animals commonly found in a zoo.

About 70 blind adults visited Hogle Zoo Saturday, making friends with Sicilian donkeys, turtles, goats and an exotic lizard called a chuckwalla.

It was the first time members of the Utah Council of the Blind had visited the zoo, which provided them with discount rates and special "hands-on" opportunities. The trip was suggested by Ruth Wheeler, wife of council president Jack Wheeler, because "there are lots of sounds and smells and people can touch things. Besides that, it's a great place for a family outing."

Some of the animals were a little intimidating. Mary Collins made almost everyone in the Discovery Center touch Gizmo, a snake, before she finally gathered enough courage to do it herself.

Seconds later, she was petting him. "That's strange," she said. "He doesn't feel at all like I expected. He's like a knitted thing."

Nadine Hackwell had a close encounter with a starfish. Reaching into the "What Am I?" display, she gave a startled shriek. "Oh, I thought he moved. But I guess he couldn't have - since he's dead," she laughed.

Rick Van Driel, who is also blind, navigates the zoo like he was born there. He's been a docent in the Discovery Center for almost a year, and he took particular pleasure in showing his visitors how to handle the snake. He also showed them what porcupine skin and alligator hide feel like. Besides working with the snakes, Gizmo and Gonzo, Van Driel said he spends a lot of time "placating Maynard, the parrot."

Jack Wheeler said the trip was not only fun, but educational. Many blind people have heard descriptions of the animals. But by touching them, they get a sense of size and texture and other traits that just can't be conveyed by words.

The council has monthly activities for its 412 members. For information, call 1-800-273-4569.