ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – The Abilene Zoo is now certified as a sensory inclusive zoo. While this zoo has been a place for families to be around other people and be educated, it can also be overstimulating for those facing sensory issues. Now, the zoo is making accommodations for those with disabilities. 

This inclusion will help visitors like Hunter Thomas. His mother, Jamie told KTAB/KRBC he has autism and faces sensory needs, among other disabilities. When Thomas is not at school or home, he can often be found at the zoo. 

“He loves his animals, too. We love the zoo,” said his mother, Jamie. 

As they began going to the zoo frequently, Jamie said she began to noticed the day would often become difficult for Hunter. 

“Deep down, he really would love to hang out and do all of the things,” Thomas explained. “But when he starts getting people around him, and all the noises start building up around him, it leads to his desire to want to get out of here. Meltdowns, behaviors, you know, things that are very typical for those with a sensory disorder.”

Because of visitors like Hunter, Development Manager Denae Duesler said the Abilene Zoo has trained 50% of its staff to know how to help visitors with disabilities and provide sensory bags. 

“Being accessible to our entire community has always been a priority for us,” praised Duesler. 

As the zoo had already been working with KultureCity, Duesler told KTAB/KRBC she noticed this organization offered the certification and decided to be a part of it. 

As needed, visitors can get sensory bags free of charge from the gift shop, which includes the following items: 

  • Weighted lap pad 
  • Noise cancelling headphones 
  • Fidget toys 
  • KultureCity landyard for staff to identify those with a disability 
  • Feelings card 
  • “I need” card 

KultureCity also created a page that includes what areas are quieter or louder areas at the zoo. It also mentions which areas have a stronger odor.

“We have seen more requests for things like sensory bags. We also have seen an increase in questions such as, you know, here is a quiet space in the zoo where we can maybe get away from it?,” Duesler boasted. “We find it’s more on those days that we tend to be a little bit busier, like Boo at the Zoo.”  

Pediatric Director at the West Texas Rehab Center, Jobeth Huber-Willis, stressed the importance in creating a space where all people feel welcomed to be educated and be around animals. 

“Sensory disfunction or sensory problems, or kids with sensitivities,” listed Duesler. “Not only just affect children, but I think a spectrum of ages, too.”

The zoo’s new certification puts the location at a higher level.  

“I think that tells you about what kind of community we live in here in Abilene,” says Huber-Willis. “We have a lot of families that have children or family members with autism, and I think a lot of times, they feel like they’re not really wanted or they kind of get pushed away because it takes a lot sometimes for families to get out and get around others because some people don’t understand autism.” 

This is all a part of a bigger initiative for the Abilene Zoo to become more inclusive for those with disabilities. There have also been other efforts up until this point, such as choosing material on the boardwalk in the Wetlands of the Americas that would be accessible for those in wheelchairs. They also put lower windows in the alligator’s holder building to help those in wheelchairs easily see him. Duesler says more plans like these are incorporated in their future expansion plan. 

Jamie says this is important for many reasons, but mainly says, “Abilene is growing at a fast rate, and our disability population isn’t slowing down.”

The Abilene Zoo is one of only four zoos in Texas that are sensory certified.