Through special programs, staff and volunteer training, and tools to assist zoo guests, Potter Park Zoo strives to provide a safe and welcoming experience to those with special needs and unique challenges, and will celebrate April as Autism Acceptance Month.
“The zoo offers a monthly program, FALCONERS, for those with special needs and unique challenges,” said Mariah Martinez, Community Outreach and Inclusion Specialist at Potter Park Zoo. “This monthly event provides free admission, learning opportunities, and crafts to those who register. Many families rely on this special time and date to come to the zoo because of the accommodations provided. During spring and summer months the zoo opens one hour early for the FALCONERS families and in the fall, the zoo team provides separate events for Fall Zootacular and Wonderland of Lights. The program has grown tremendously over the past five years and new families are always welcome.”
The next FALCONERS event will be held April 17. The theme is Party for the Planet. Those interested in attending this event or future events, please visit https://potterparkzoo.org/falconers/.
Staff and volunteer training is also a critical component in creating a welcoming environment for those with unique challenges. Since 2018, staff and volunteers have completed many inclusivity trainings through the Mid-Michigan Autism Association and KultureCity. In March of 2019, Potter Park Zoo became the first AZA accredited zoo in Michigan to become certified Sensory Inclusive by KultureCity. This certification informs the public that the Zoo is sensory certified all year and not just during FALCONERS events. Zoo staff and volunteers are all required to take the online training each year.
When a guest visits Potter Park Zoo, either during a FALCONERS event or a general visit, they will find several accommodations that may enhance their zoo visit. Many individuals experience challenges with sensory regulations and a major barrier for these individuals is sensitivity to over stimulation and noise. Prior to arriving at the zoo guests can view a social story found on the Potter Park Zoo website. The social story shows what guests can expect to experience while visiting the zoo. Upon arrival to the zoo, guests can check out a free sensory bag that is equipped with noise canceling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards and sunglasses to use during their visit.
The zoo also has many designated quiet areas to provide for those who need a private, safe and quiet space. A map of all quiet areas is available on the zoo website and there are signs throughout the zoo designating the location of these areas including an indoor quiet room. Recently a quiet area was designated in the park as well.
To continue the zoo’s efforts in inclusivity and accessibility, a braille map was installed inside the zoo entrance. This map gives those who are visually impaired or blind an opportunity to understand the zoo’s layout and where they can find specific animals. Braille booklets can be checked out and used by a guest throughout their zoo visit as well.
Thanks to our volunteers and zookeepers, the animals at Potter Park Zoo recognized Autism Acceptance Month with fun and colorful enrichment! Enrichment is given to all of our animals as an outlet for natural behaviors, providing them with new sensations and experiences, and helping to keep them active and engaged. Depending on the animal, enrichment could be a toy, a new scent, or a puzzle feeder which hides food and treats. Our animal care staff often make enrichment items from materials like paper and cardboard, which are eco-friendly and safe for our animals. If you see these materials in an exhibit, they are enrichment items, not trash! In this video, our mongoose are challenged to retrieve mealworms hidden in cardboard items made by our volunteers.