Animal Express Delivers Smiles

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Geronimo the armadillo is one of the animal ambassador used in the Animal Express program.

People love to meet and touch an armadillo during an Animal Express program.

One of the most gratifying programs in the Safari Park’s Education Department is Animal Express. Funded entirely by donations, Animal Express is an outreach program that brings animals to people who are unable to visit the Safari Park, allowing them to enjoy the many health benefits associated with interactions with animals, such as the reduction of blood pressure and stress levels. Every Animal Express visit is led by two experienced staff members who bring three or four of our animal ambassadors. Staff members share the animals in a fun, interactive fashion and often bring animals trained to allow touches from members of the audience.

When Animal Express was originally developed in 1999, the primary clients were adult groups at senior care and convalescent centers, but now the audience has expanded to include facilities that care for children, teen centers, rehabilitation clinics, and shelters for victims of domestic violence.  Any facility with residents in need of smiles is the perfect location for an Animal Express visit!

Dusty the chinchilla

What fun to feel how soft a chinchilla really is!

So far in 2013, the Animal Express program has visited nine facilities, with five more scheduled for the remainder of January. Here are some special moments from their visits:

* We were greeted by a sign announcing our visit at a recent visit to a facility specializing in Alzheimer’s and dementia. On the sign, residents of the facility had written the animals they hoped we would bring with us to visit them.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t grant the wishes of those who wanted us to bring a lion, but the residents were delighted to meet Dusty the chinchilla, Geronimo the armadillo, Cliff the tawny frogmouth, and Tombi the hedgehog! One facility staff member commented, “One of the residents, who hasn’t responded in a couple of weeks, made sounds of pleasure after touching [the animals].”  The facility also has a blind resident who was delighted by the sensory experience.  And, remarkably, the site staff also reported that “The residents, Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, remembered most of the animals [from previous Animal Express visits] because of their uniqueness.”  It is just this type of response that makes the Animal Express program so special and rewarding.

Zeke the kookaburra can usually be persuaded to make his signature call!

Zeke the kookaburra can usually be persuaded to make his signature call!

* A memory care facility was the site of another Animal Express visit. There were approximately 30 residents and staff in the audience. The animal ambassador line up included Aruk the sugarglider, Stanley the tenrec, Tattoo the armadillo, and Ashley the chinchilla. On the feedback form that the facility’s staff completed, they wrote, “[Our residents’] reactions were so positive: joy & happiness!  Several clients that don’t normally attend activities came and interacted with the animals; it made their day!”

* Animal Express visited a facility caring for abused/neglected children on Saturday, January 12, so that the visit would not conflict with the children’s school day. The children were quiet and reserved when Animal Express arrived; by the end of the program, the children were jovial and engaged. The animals truly brought out their enthusiasm and reminded them of the joy of childhood!

* At a small residence for at-risk teen girls with traumatic backgrounds, animal ambassadors Euphrates the leopard gecko, Peanut the armadillo, Kipanga the pygmy falcon, and Ilizi the African bullfrog visited and brought smiles to the faces of their audience. The girls showed very high interest in the animals and enjoyed the program’s ability to allow them to relax and be light-hearted.

We are so grateful to all who donate funds for this extremely worthwhile program.  Not only is it an incredible gift to every resident at the facilities we visit, but a gift to our Education staff to take part in such a rewarding program and a gift to our animal ambassadors to enjoy the enrichment of participating in outreach. Animal Express truly allows us to put the mission of San Diego Zoo Global into action and connect people to wildlife.

Dana Arbogast is an education supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, <a href=””>Junior Night Sleepover</a>.