On March 24, Potter Park Zoo held its monthly Falconers day for people with special needs to get a free day at the zoo with their families. There were tables with arts and crafts, educational spaces where guests could learn about various creatures, volunteers with ‘ambassador animals’ including a ferret and rabbit for visitors to touch and even a rhinoceros encounter where guests could go to pet one of the zoo’s rhinos, Doppsee.
In its fourth year, the Falconers program originally aimed to give people with autism a special day at the zoo. Potter Park is now open once per month to anyone with special needs and their families.
“It really brings a joy to the family and it gives them an experience that does cost money usually,” said zoo coordinator Mariah Martinez.
While the theme this time was endangered animals, which included the rhino encounter, the zoo keeps the program fresh by offering something new every month. The themes aim to bring in extra experiences for the visitors and educate them on different topics. April 27 will be Party for the Planet day, where visitors will learn how to preserve the Earth while taking part in a number of activities.
Workers said some families come every month, some traveling from hours away. Zoo employees and volunteers have been trained by the Mid-Michigan Autism Association and received sensory needs training through KultureCity. Potter Park tries to keep the same volunteers on Falconers days so visitors see familiar faces.
Zoo volunteer Mary Siegrist said, “The neatest thing I’ve watched in the past years since the beginning [of the Falconers program] is children that have been here from the first year and watching them grow and progress.”
Boasting exhibits from otters to lions to penguins, Potter Park has plenty to offer on a regular day. With all the extra activities for Falconers, there may not be enough time in the day to fit everything in.
“Any day volunteering at the zoo is rewarding and this is extra special,” said Jill Corrin, a Potter Park volunteer. “It’s icing on the cake that these families have special time because they obviously have special needs where coming to the zoo on a normal day might be hard for them.”
Events are getting more popular, with roughly a thousand visitors for Falconers last year, nearly twice as many as 2017.
“I just love to see how much he smiles on these days,” said AJ Webb, who has been bringing his son, Arrand, who has autism, to the events for almost a year. “He loves seeing all the animals.”