Bringing the Animals to the Zoo

Bringing the Animals to the Zoo

By Marion Gwizdala

On Wednesday, August 6, 2014, my wife, Merry Schoch who serves as  Vice President of the florida Association of Guide Dog Users, and I met with the executive management team of the Lowry Park Zoological Garden. 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 afford individuals with disabilities who use service animals an optimal experience when visiting U.S. 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 to disabled individuals 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 their own policies for such access. Some states had provisions allowing places that keep and display live animals for public enjoyment or education to deny individuals with disabilities accompanied by a service animal access to such places with their service animals. The state of Florida had such a provision that we worked to have repealed following the enactment of the ADA as it violated the implementing regulations of the Act. Since then, there has been some litigation to clarify the rights of access to zoos by service animal users. In spite of 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 who was raising a guide dog puppy, visited the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse New York and was denied access in spite of New York statutes allowing 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. Dr. Woodman 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 & 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 demonstrated by his willingness to dedicate more than two hours of his time to meet with us, along with that of three of his executive management staff, as well as his commitment to the long-term goals of this project. 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 to make immediate changes based upon our input.

It was very refreshing that the management team valued and respected our experiences and suggestions. We were especially impressed with 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 so to recognize the value of our expertise. I believe his willingness to be a part of the training curriculum by demonstrating how systematic desensitization of live animal exhibits will improve the experiences of all concerned will help this program be more widely accepted by those who exhibit their animals. 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 individuals 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’s, 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 for 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 & 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. Dr. Killmar shared that the San Diego Zoo has a web-based instructional platform where this curriculum could be made easily accessible to all personnel of subscribers to that service. As a member of the Board of directors for the Florida Association of Museums, Mr. Pugh also shared that this project could be a springboard for training other types of museums about how to make their collections more accessible to the blind and otherwise disabled.

We are now 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 & 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 individuals becoming involved in staff training, those willing to invest time in the process of systematic desensitization, and other needs we will identify as it unfolds. If you have suggestions for this initiative, please feel free to write to me directly. My contact information is

Marion Gwizdala, President

National Association of Guide Dog users Inc.

National Federation of the Blind


Hotline: 888-NAGDU411 (888-624-3841)