Issue of February, 03, 2002
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“Contact Zoo” for Special Needs Children in Caracas
A two-hectare area on the outskirts of the Venezuela capital holds the first contact zoo in Latin America set up especially for mentally disabled children like those with Down’s syndrome.

A two-hectare area on the outskirts of the Venezuela capital holds the first contact zoo in Latin America set up especially for mentally disabled children like those with Down’s syndrome. “Expanzoo”, which opened its doors in September 2000, is the brainchild of Omar Nucete, the father of a disabled girl, who financed the project with the revenues earned by banking software he designed. “Several schools turned down the proposal, and I began to look for a solution,” Nucete told Tierramérica. His original idea was to set up a school, but he ended up opting for what looked like a more cost-effective undertaking: a petting zoo designed to stimulate special needs children through contact with the animals. The project is still in its early stages, and no one, including Nucete, is sure that it will be profitable. For now, the entry fee is equivalent to 10 dollars, although only adults pay. Agreements are in the pipeline to allow schools and institutions to schedule group visits. The day-to-day running of the zoo is in the hands of veterinarian Daniel García, a specialist in wildlife, who joined the project when the first animals were brought in, in December 2000. “These are animals that from birth have been accustomed to contact with human beings, because they come from other zoos or from private owners, not from the wild,” explained the veterinarian. The planning of Expanzoo has been based more on the intuition of its administrators than on experiences in other parts of the world. According to García, the only other similar project that exists in Latin America is in the capital of Argentina. But it is part of the Buenos Aires zoo, and not an end in itself, as is Expanzoo, which is located 30 kilometers from downtown Caracas. “Mentally retarded children tend to be very sweet and loving, and these animals also need affection. We have more than enough room here for that beneficial contact to take place,” he said. Therapeutic horseback riding is another activity offered by Expanzoo. Nucete explained that equine-facilitated therapy has become widespread in the United States for treating special needs children and adults. “Riding a horse sends out 110 signals of muscular stimulation per minute, something that technology has not yet invented,” teacher Dania González told Tierramérica.

* Andrés Cañizález is an IPS correspondent.

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