Friday, July 26, 2013

A Touching Experience: Visually Impaired Kids Get Personal With Tigers

Last week, the Oregon Zoo hosted a group of visually impaired children and gave them the opportunity to pet two very real, very alive Amur tigers. Fear not! The tigers, Nikki and Mikhail, were under sedation as part of their routine health checkups and were therefore unlikely to react to the children with more than a snore.

These kids, members of the ColumbiaRegional Program, an organization that aims to help Oregon school districts better serve their students with specialized needs, got to experience tigers in a way most people never will. Not being able to see limits a person's conception of the world to touch, sound, smell, and taste, but how does one get an impression of a tiger based solely on sound or smell? (Note: attempting to taste tigers is not recommended.) CRP program administrator, Lisa McConachie, says that there is no substitute for physical contact for the visually impaired.

“A visual impairment is a distance disability,” she says. “You can imagine they can't access anything outside their arms' reach.”

So the chance to touch tigers and understand them more was a unique opportunity for the Oregon children. A few found that their expectations and reality didn't quite line up. One middle schooler said she had thought Nikki, the female tiger, would be soft, but her fur was actually kind of rough. Another girl described Nikki's paws as smelling like sweaty feet, and her tongue was sandpapery, like a house cat's, but in larger scale.

The great thing about this partnership between the Oregon Zoo and CRP is that not only did these young people get an awesome field trip, they also got to meet other kids like themselves. Many parents like the social aspect since “mainstreaming” during the school year sometimes doesn't allow their children to meet others in similar situations.

Other zoos and aquariums are catching on and reaching out to the disabled community, too. (Oregon is the best, though, right?)

Now, not to be a killjoy or anything, but as someone who has volunteered at a wildlife sanctuary, I must, MUST stress the importance of safe practices when dealing with wild animals. This enviably cool learning opportunity took place in a controlled environment with experienced professionals on hand, and even in circumstances where an animal appears to be passive or sedate, involuntary or reflexes movements can occur and cause injury. As awesome as petting a tiger sounds, don't go out and do it yourself! But I'm sure you already knew that. I just had to put in my little safety plug. :)

Anyway...What do you think? Have you ever done anything like this? If given the chance, would you?


  1. Given the chance I would do it in a heart beat!

  2. I think that is so cool! I have always had a love of tigers and think I would cry if i had the chance to actually touch one :)

  3. Ah, me too! And now I'm curious about the roughness of their fur.