Betty Scanlon and Dave Schrupp
Milwaukee County Zoo
The Sensory Safari at the Milwaukee County Zoo is an interactive experience that serves the special needs population from preschool age to senior citizens. This program provides a hands-on educational experience using full body mounts, animal hides and skeletons of common North American animals. It is a very tactile event. “This program was launched in May of 1991.
The Sensory Safari endeavors to teach individuals about the similarities, differences and natural habitats of animals exhibited at our zoo along with animals native to Wisconsin. We try to use our guests knowledge base (usually family pets) to reinforce the vast diversity of wildlife in our world. We want to bridge the learning gap to the more exotic, less familiar zoo animals taking our guests from the known to the unknown.
Prior to each visit a Pre-visit packet is sent to each group participating in the Safari. It prepares individuals in the group for their visit. The packet offers a number of activities which rely on the various senses, such as scent tracking for the sense of smell. The interactive activity allows the individual educator or director to customize the pre-visit activity based on the needs and sensory level of the group. Educational information included can also be incorporated at the learning & experiential level of the participants. This packet also prepares our guests for what to expect and alleviate concerns or fears.
Prior to the zoo visit, we determine the needs of our participants so that the volunteer interpreters can adapt their presentation to be the most meaningful for the group.
Individuals visiting the safari are encouraged to touch 3-dimensional full body mounts, skins bones to feel the fur, the position of the ears, teeth, the tail, the feet, the feathers ( and other body coverings). We talk about these features to answer question like where these animals would live…land, water, air and what climate they would reside in. The Sensory Safari provides our guests with the opportunity to touch the mounts & pelts ……as opposed to “look but don’t touch”. This is a hands on experience. Larger groups are subdivided into smaller groups to give them more direct contact with the volunteer interpreters.
Through this experience, we would like to teach the similarities and differences in common North American animals and less familiar exotic animals exhibited at our zoo. Volunteers talk about and demonstrate animal coverings, animal shapes and animal location using our mounts and skins. These animal mounts are used to discuss animal adaptations as they relate to the animals habitat. Comparisons can be made about animal’s diet based on their teeth or can compare the size of various animals.
Individuals visiting the safari are encouraged to touch our 3-dimensional animal mounts to feel their coverings (fur, feathers, scales, etc.), the position of the ears, teeth, the tail, the feet etc. they do so at their comfort level or my just look. It is entirely up to them.
When a request is called in, a form is filled in. Using this information, we decide what special adaptations need to be made and choose the mounts that will best meet our visitors’ special needs. This also helps the volunteer interpreters time to adapt their presentation to be the most relevant.
The animals have been acquired through a number of sources. We worked closely with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to obtain confiscated animals or animals found dead. Field offices throughout the state searched freezers for specimens and informed field agents of the animals we needed in the event of a confiscation. Other animals were donated by individuals. None of the animals were harvested for this program. Our museum was also helpful as a resource for animals. It was decided by the planning committee to include as many representative animals for each classification as we could acquire.
The animal identification tags are made of brass and in both raised letters and Braille (level one) for ease in identification for the visually impaired.
In developing the training manuals and reference materials for the interpreters, the expertise of community representatives with organizations such as Very Special Arts, Easter Seals, and the Wisconsin Council for the Blind were used. These groups also helped with training of our volunteers.
Although the program operates year round, we have noticed that just as the zoo’s attendance fluctuates from winter to summer so do the reservations for Sensory Safari. In our climate, the nicer weather brings more groups. We have visitors in wheel chairs and our Wisconsin weather determines when it is best for them to visit.
The use of a brochure, which is shared with various organizations, schools and senior communities, helps us reach our target audience and invite them to the zoo to participate in this tactile experience.
One uncertainty we are face is how long our mounts will be usable before they need to be replaced. We have added pelts to decrease some of the wear and tear. It is hard to determine the “life” of a mount. Because of this uncertainty, it is important to maintain our relationship with the state DNR so that additional animals can be obtained. This also requires us to maintain a designated budget for the program and a source of cash flow.
The organization of this program is fluid so it meets the needs of our guests. We have divided the animals into flexible groups & take notes on what groups have seen. We enjoy working closely with the people scheduling a Sensory Safari to make this a wonderful experience for all involved.
Outcomes of this program are many and varied. Because each of our audiences have handicaps that make some activities challenging, it is important that our guests are comfortable, have a positive learning experience, can take something that they have learned into the larger setting of the Milwaukee County Zoo and have fun while enjoying themselves. We use this experience to have our guests feel good about their abilities. Experiencing a Sensory Safari enhances their confidence and allays some fears before setting out on the zoo grounds. It is a great way to start their day at the Milwaukee County Zoo. In a setting where do not touch is a constant reminder, it is fun to encourage our guests “to touch” and to learn from what they feel. Participating in a recreational activity is a positive outcome. It is a leisure time activity that can lead to many more zoo visits.