Officials work to make Potter Park Zoo accessible

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Every year, Potter Park Zoo hosts Boo at the Zoo throughout October. They also host the FALCONERS Boo at the Zoo, which happened to fall on Oct. 18 this year. 

The Potter Park Zoo’s FALCONERS program, or Families of Autistic Learners Connecting Empathy Responsibility and Stewardship, is designed for children and adults with special needs and unique challenges such as autism or developmental disabilities. The FALCONERS program allows individuals and their family members to experience the zoo in a safe, welcoming and sensory-friendly environment, according to the FALCONERS website. 

The zoo was named the first certified sensory-inclusive zoo in the state of Michigan in March of 2019, according to the Potter Park Zoo website. The website said the zoo aims to be “a place for all people to visit, no matter what physical, mental, or financial barrier they may face.”

“The connections we can help people have at the zoo — they can have fun and learn,” said Mariah Martinez, Potter Park Zoo community engagement director. “You won’t see some animals in nature. It’s about how you learn and the animals have good homes.”

The Potter Park Zoo won a national award for its Zoo in Your Neighborhood program in September. The program works with more than 35 partner organizations to bring free educational programming to the area. Zoo officials say they work to keep these and other programs accessible to all. 

“Knowing that we’re here for (the community) as a place they can come,” she said. “People think it’s just a place to see animals, but we’re more than that.”

Martinez said those who come to the FALCONERS Boo at the Zoo most likely would not come to Boo at the Zoo if this event did not exist. She said the FALCONERS Boo at the Zoo is a low stimulus environment, meaning that there is quiet music during the event as well as less happening between animal exhibits. A goal is to make the event less “scary.”

Sean Evans said he and his family believe the Potter Park Zoo has become a place for families and the community to experience animals since its growth in recent years.

“It’s an average zoo, but it’s just the right size. (The zoo) has definitely grown over the years,” Evans said. “The neighborhood also is pretty tight-knit. I think everybody can come here.”

Ashley Groesbeck, a volunteer at the Potter Park Zoo, lit up while handing out candy to kids and seeing them in costume. She also mentioned the zoo’s impact on the community.

“The effect it has on the community, (being able to) hand out candy and seeing all the kids smiles,” she said.

Groesbeck said that seeing all of the time and effort put into all the different events, like Boo at the Zoo and experiencing the community impact (and the zoo’s) involvement with its community is something she really enjoys about Potter Park and volunteering there.

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