TAMPA, Fla. – As two blind people and their guide dogs take a stroll through ZooTampa, one of the Guenons –a small African primate – begins to vocalize, calling the rest of the troop’s attention to the approaching dogs. The CHATTER is not a distress call but a way of calling the rest of the troop to see what it is. None of the dogs – two seasoned guide dogs and a puppy-in-training – give the Guenons a second look. When coming upon the African Painted dogs, though, the seasoned guide dog gets a bit excited while the puppy is, well, more than just a little excited. The guide dog’s handler gives a gentle, corrective, “No, Trooper!” to his guide dog while the puppy’s trainer stops and discourages the pup’s bark.
“If we are going to be accessible to all guests,” explains Dr. Larry Killmar, ZooTampa’s chief zoological officer, “we need to look at accessibility from every point, including of those guests who use service dogs!”
For several years, ZooTampa has been meeting with blind advocates to increase the level of access to disabled individuals who use service animals by desensitizing the Zoo’s animals to the presence of dogs and minimizing instinctive negative behaviors on the parts of the wild animals. It also helps guide dog users and their trainers, exposing their dogs to the unique sights, sounds, and smells of a zoo in order to keep their dogs in best form.
On Thursday, December 3, puppy-raisers and guide dog users from Freedom Guide Dogs for the Blind will expose their guide dogs and future guide dogs to the animals at ZooTampa. Eric Loori, a guide dog mobility instructor and co-founder of Freedom Guide Dogs for the Blind, will keep an eye on the pups and offer input when needed. Likewise, zookeepers will assess how wild animals react and how they adapt to the presence of the dogs.
“As we raise these pups to become guide dogs, we need to realize that blind people are a cross section of the general public,” explains Merry Schoch, a blind licensed clinical social worker, guide dog user, puppy-raiser, and organizer of this event. “Our job is to expose these dogs to as many environments as a blind person may encounter, including a zoo!”
Schoch has been involved in ZooTampa’s desensitization program since the beginning. When the project started, ZooTampa had ten areas that restricted service animals from entering; now, there are none.
“Our goal is to give as full of an experience to those who use service animals as we give to everyone else,” explains ZooTampa’s Dr. Killmar. “Working with Freedom Guide Dogs helps both our programs accomplish our goals!”
WHAT: Freedom Guide Dog Puppies Visit ZooTampa for Desensitization Exercise
WHEN: Thursday, December 3, 2020, 9:30am- 11am
Go to https://zootampa.org/ to learn more.