The Inclusive Zoo Experience: Marrying Flora, Fauna And Challenged Visitors
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, Omaha NE
As a good marriage is a blend of people with different personalities, backgrounds and approaches, so a zoo needs a blend of elements. A zoo is not just people looking at animals, but diverse visitors experiencing the whole zoo environment. It is this blend of animals and plants, families and handicapped visitors that the Henry Doorly Zoo provides in the Garden of the Senses.
The dream of Horticulture Curator Terri Gouveia grew from a modest beginning. A volunteer told Terri that she thought there should be an herb garden and Terri said that she had a plan for a Sacred Hoop Garden with herbs but needed about $25,000 to begin the project. A few days later the volunteer brought Terri a $25,000 check from a foundation…Dr. Lee Simmons, Director of HDZ, liked the idea and saw a garden as a way to, “Spruce up a grubbier corner of the zoo.” As plans progressed it became clear that this could be much more than just flowers and trees. What emerged was a sensory garden incorporating flora, fauna and art forms with special emphasis on the handicapped.
The first phase of the garden opened in the spring of 1998 and the second part the following year. It continues to grow and evolve each year. The garden is located in an area that long ago held a pavilion that was originally part of the Omaha Trans-Mississippi Exposition in 1898. In the old Riverview Park days it was a popular place for picnics. Later the pavilion was enclosed and became a barn that served as a temporary home for everything from elephants and giraffe to cheetah and birds. The old barn was remodeled and is now the winter home for many of the birds in our free flight aviary as well as the birds on display in the garden. An artesian well supplied water to the park. An attempt was made to re-open the well but the effort failed. A brick replica was built and is now a flowerbed.
Funding, as with all HDZ capital improvements, came from private donations. There are many memorial trees, shrubs, benches and statues. What started with a $40-50 thousand budget grew to $1.5 million. As more money became available a landscape architect drew the early plans and HDZ horticulturist Anne Trumble and an intern from Kansas State University developed the garden. The Sacred Hoop Garden was moved to the Wildlife Safari Park. Funds came from local service groups, foundations and individual donors. A large part of the woodland was financed by the grandchildren of Henry Doorly, for whom the zoo is named. The area is a memorial to their grandmother, Margaret Hitchcock Doorly.
Beds along the fence enclosing the garden give a hint of what lies within. Under a large tree is a hosta garden with about two hundred varieties of hostas donated by a local enthusiast. Just outside the entrance is a ceramic map of the zoo, a tree sculpture now becoming covered with vines and the replica well. A large sundial stands at the entrance.
Entering the garden from the south, a visitor finds on the right the first of many animal sculptures, a leopard. To the left is the herb garden with lavender, garlic chives, tarragon, thyme, parsley, rosemary, lemon balm and other herbs. These can be touched, rubbed, smelled. In the center of the ring is a pool holding crocodiles, fake or course. There are flowers and shrubs along the right and a large tree comes into sight the plants are all shade tolerant. On the east is another entrance. Next comes a butterfly garden with colorful flowers at all seasons. A life size baby elephant begs to be ridden.
Turning back, the visitor sees a small aviary with sulphur crested cockatoo and copper pheasants. In front of the new barn are pools fed by water pouring from the mouths of three lions. The water falls into two lower pools with aquatic plants and sculptures.
Another aviary is on the end of the barn. A group of highly endangered hyacinth macaws add color and sound to the cage. Next come two arbors covered with vines and the rose beds. Between them is another pool with a sundial in the center and bronze swans in the water. Many birds–macaws, parrots, sun conure and others spend the day in perches in the arbors. A bird keeper is always on duty to protect both the birds and the public. At the end is
Astrid’s Place, a gazebo with shade for hot days and benches for relaxation. Astrid is the volunteer who helped get the whole garden project started. Tables and chairs are available in a small plaza.
Before the woodland area is a pool fed by a small stream, which runs along the wooded path. The walkway leads up the hill, over a bridge, beside the stream and back down to the main garden and back to the entrance. A major focus of the garden is the horticulture therapy program carried out each year with help from the Kansas State University Horticulture Therapy Department. One or two interns spend five hundred hours working with clients whose abilities range from mild mental retardation to sever mental and physical disabilities. Some are in a substance abuse rehabilitation center. Disadvantaged youth are also in a volunteer program.
For hundreds of years horticulture therapy has played an important part in the healing, rehabilitation and well being of people in every walk of life. At one time patients in hospitals who couldn’t pay their bills worked in the gardens as payment toward their fees. Doctors realized that those people who were digging in the dirt were getting well much faster than those who stayed outside. After World Wars I and II, thousands of men gardened on a regular basis in the veterans’ hospitals as a form of therapy.
Working with the interns and the garden manager, our clients do everything from weeding and deadheading to planting, scrubbing and related crafts. Emphasis is placed on developing skills such as hand-eye co-ordination. Following directions with multiple steps and fine and gross motor skills. The horticulture therapy program is an important tool for improving social skills and self-esteem within the group.
Enjoyment of the garden is certainly not limited to the handicapped. It is a place of serene beauty on a hot summer day, a place to have lunch, read a book or let the kids be kids. They can even ride a rhino or pet a komodo dragon. Zoo volunteers help plant and maintain the beds. One talented volunteer has built a needed tool shed, planters and trellises. This is a favorite location for the docent’s summer Story Time.
From earliest spring until late fall there is an ever changing display of flowers from the most exotic to those that can be found in any local garden. The rose beds are spectacular in June.
While we have been fortunate to have ample space and funding for such a large garden and program, an effective therapeutic garden program can be developed on a much smaller scale. Intern Laura Rogge says, “Results can be reached with minimal investment and clients can benefit by simply planting, watering and grooming the existing flower pots on the grounds. The zoo benefited directly from the good will generated by involving groups from the community that otherwise wouldn’t have this multi-faceted opportunity to contribute.”
If your zoo has an enrichment committee they would probably welcome a garden with scented herbs, vegetables and shrubs for browse. Any unused corner of the grounds could easily become a small miracle.
Master Gardeners and local garden clubs could become interested in such a project. Many communities have botanical gardens but the zoo may not have considered including a sensory garden as part of the zoo experience. Local, state and federal grants are available.
It is important in planning a garden to accommodate people with disabilities to ask them what they want, what will work for them. A visually impaired man was involved in planning for our signs and sculptures.
Identifying plant labels are written in Braille as well as in English and Latin. The chance to feel the real shape of an orangutan’s face is something that no book or description could give.
More is needed than the garden itself. There are special tools available. Examples include ratcheting pruners that compensate for limited hand strength, trowels with special grips to reduce wrist strain and long handled pruners to extend reach and allow working without bending or climbing. Tools should be stored near the work area. A good water source with lightweight hose is essential.
Professional help is available from the Association of Zoo Horticulturists, Virginia Zoological Park, Audubon Nature Institute and St. Louis Zoo Children’s Hospital all have successful horticulture therapy programs.
Terri Gouveia says, “A good idea has a life of it’s own. Develop a master plan, then carry it out piece by piece.”
Dr. Lee Simmons, Director, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo
Terri Gouveia, Curator of Horticulture
Anne Trumble, Designer Kim Kurth, photographs
Frank Bluvas, Garden Manager Maria Knutson, advice
Laura Rogge, Intern
Ann Rush, poster