Braille Monitor                                             November 2014

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Bringing Our Animals to the Zoo

by Marion Gwizdala

Marion GwizdalaFrom the Editor: Marion Gwizdala is the president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users and has played a significant role in increasing the membership of the division and strengthening the ties between it and other work that occurs in the Federation. Here is what he has to say about recent negotiations on behalf of guide dog users who wish to visit zoos accompanied by their guide dogs:

On Wednesday, August 6, 2014, Merry Schoch, vice president of the Florida Association of Guide Dog Users, and I met with the executive management team of the Lowry Park Zoological Garden, also known as Lowry Park Zoo. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss how Lowry Park Zoo and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) can work with the National Association of Guide Dog Users to provide people with disabilities who use service animals an optimal experience when visiting US zoos. We have been interested in this project for quite some time, so I am pleased that all the necessary elements are in place to make this a reality.

Due to the unique challenges of displaying live wild animals, the issue of access for those accompanied by service animals has been an area of concern for quite some time. Before the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there were no nationally recognized policies or practices concerning service animals in zoos, leaving each exhibit to develop its own policies for such access. Some states that have places that keep and display live animals for public enjoyment or education had provisions to deny service animals admission. The state of Florida had such a provision that we worked to have repealed following the enactment of the ADA, since the Florida act violated the ADA’s implementing regulations. Since then there has been some litigation to clarify the rights of access to zoos by service animal users. Despite these cases many zoos continue to have policies, practices, and procedures that are not congruent with the ADA, ranging from restricted access to specific areas to a requirement for a chaperone while on the property.

The impetus for this specific project and our collaboration with AZA came when Dr. Don Woodman, a veterinarian and zookeeper from St. Petersburg, Florida, visited the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, New York, and was denied access. He was raising a guide dog puppy at the time, and New York statutes allowed service dog trainers the same access as disabled individuals accompanied by their trained service dogs. Dr. Woodman was told that even a fully trained service dog had limited access to the exhibits. He suggested we contact AZA, and the rest of the story unfolds from there.

I want to acknowledge the support and encouragement of Steve Olson, vice president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and Mark Trieglaff, president of ACTServices, an ADA consulting firm specializing in work with zoos. It is through Mr. Olson's suggestion after attending the 2013 annual meeting of the National Association of Guide Dog Users in Orlando that we are embarking upon this project. Mr. Trieglaff also attended this meeting, solidifying his commitment to ensuring the least restrictive access to zoo exhibits. I appreciate Mark's introduction to Craig Pugh, with whom he had worked while at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, Illinois. I commend Mr. Pugh's energetic and enthusiastic support of our efforts, as demonstrated by his willingness to dedicate more than two hours of his time to meet with us. In addition, he encouraged the attendance of three of his executive management staff and affirmed his commitment to the long-term goals of this project in their presence. I was also very encouraged by Mr. Pugh's willingness to lead by example, allowing us the opportunity to take a critical look at Lowry Park Zoo's policies, practices, and procedures and then to follow through by making immediate changes based upon our input.

It was very refreshing that the management team valued and respected our experience and suggestions. We were encouraged by the willingness of Dr. Larry Killmar, Lowry Park Zoo's vice president of Animal Science and Conservation, to think outside the box and even more to recognize the value of our expertise. We were especially impressed with Dr. Killmar's understanding that no simulation experience, such as blindfolding sighted people or putting ambulatory individuals in wheelchairs, can replicate the experience of the disabled person, underscoring the importance of our involvement in the creation and implementation of the project.

We also want to give credit to Tony Moore who presented some issues from an operational perspective. As Lowry Park's chief operating officer he is acutely aware of the practical issues faced by the staff with direct visitor contact. We realize that, in order to shift the paradigm of what constitutes reasonable access to people accompanied by service animals, we need to address the real concerns that are unique to live wild animal exhibits by creating sound solutions to these issues and concerns. As we progress on this project, anticipating the objections will help us advance solutions.

When we first conceived of this project, our vision was to create and market a video program for dissemination among AZA members. When we shared this vision with the team, Ruth Myers, the grants manager for Lowry Park Zoo, helped us expand our perspective by raising our sights from a stand-alone video program about the rights and responsibilities of service dog users to a more comprehensive curriculum of instruction for live animal exhibits on the importance of effective policies, practices, and procedures, of which the video would be one element. She suggested we increase the scope of the project as well as the budget. Since the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences is one of the most obvious funding sources for this project, and Ms. Myers is a former grant reviewer for IMLS, her expertise will help us create the best possible proposal for this project.

As the team began to consider the expertise of each member at the table, the need for a comprehensive training program involving all stakeholders began to unfold. Many specimens in a wild animal exhibit may never have seen a dog or may view the dog as predator or prey. This could result in dire consequences. Therefore, one element of a comprehensive curriculum will involve systematically desensitizing exhibit animals until they no longer have negative reactions to the dog’s presence. Such a desensitization program could also be a valuable training tool for those preparing puppies for guide dog work.

Another element of the curriculum will obviously involve training of the staff responsible for direct guest relations. These employees will need to understand the rights and responsibilities of those who use service dogs, what is considered appropriate service dog behavior, and how to deal with those circumstances in which the right to be accompanied by the service dog is denied, either because of the service dog’s behavior or the special circumstances of the exhibit.

Those of us who use service dogs also need to understand the unique challenges of exhibiting live wild animals. Our goal is to afford service dog users an optimal experience while visiting a zoo; however, there is a need to responsibly balance our rights of access with the rights of others. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires places of public accommodation to modify their policies, practices, and procedures, unless doing so would create a direct threat to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated. Our goal is to help zoos learn how to eliminate the threats by desensitizing their animals to the presence of a dog. At the same time we need to remember that we are dealing with wild animals, and this may not always be possible. In such cases we are offering alternatives in an effort to help all service dog users have the optimal experience they are seeking.

Dr. Killmar said that the San Diego Zoo has a web-based instructional platform where this curriculum could be made easily accessible to all personnel whose agencies subscribe to this service. As a member of the board of directors for the Florida Association of Museums, Mr. Pugh also said that this project could be a springboard for training other museums in the way to make their collections more accessible to the blind and otherwise disabled.

By the time you read this article, we will have already begun our pilot training program with Lowry Park Zoo. We are beginning the process of preparing the grant proposal and identifying the necessary resources to carry out this project. These resources include videography and editing technicians, other types of service animal users, volunteers to assist in desensitization programs, other marketing channels, curriculum development, grant research and writing, and additional funding streams. As we move forward on this initiative, we intend to keep everyone abreast of the developments. The success of this project will depend upon a team effort. This team will likely expand as more zoos embrace the concepts for which we are advocating. The team will include more people becoming involved in staff training, those willing to invest time in the process of systematic desensitization, input on how our efforts are making a difference and where they need improvement, and other needs we will identify as they arise.

If you have suggestions for this initiative or have a talent or expertise you would like to offer to the project, please feel free to contact us. Our email address is <info@nagdu.org>. You can also call us through the NAGDU Information and Advocacy Hotline at (888) NAGDU411 or (888) 624-3841.

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