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Embracing Unique Voices at Woodland Park Zoo

By Tany Holzworth
min read

Joaquin, a volunteer with autism at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash., recently shared the following poem he authored during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Poem II

I am a zoo ambassador who works at the zoo

I wonder how animals are doing

I hear funny noises

I see people loving each other

I want to study at university

I am a zoo ambassador who works at the zoo

I pretend to be anyone

I feel proud of myself

I touch an animal’s fur

I worry that many animals will go extinct

I cry sometimes when I am miserable

I am a zoo ambassador who works at the zoo

I understand that my session is about to end

I say there are many things to achieve

I dream of saving and protecting animals’ habitats

I try the best I can

I hope the zoo will open again

I am a zoo ambassador who works at the zoo

Joaquin’s sentiment is shared by other volunteers and staff, who were also missing the Zoo and experiencing alternating moments of misery and hope as they faced an uncertain future. Woodland Park Zoo made inclusion a central facet of our mission and vision, and has taken steps to scale our acceptance and support of volunteers, staff, and guests with disabilities. We believe that including people with all abilities helps us be a better conservation organization.

Joaquin entered the program when we knew that inclusion was a core value, but before concrete plans and scaffolds were in place to support volunteers with disabilities. “Diving in” with Joaquin was a fortunate step on our path toward creating a more inclusive zoo, as we learned and explored methods to success together and found that creating inclusion is not as difficult as some might think. Joaquin had opportunities to strengthen his social and executive function skills as well as his knowledge of conservation. Through learning alongside Joaquin, we were able to more authentically develop tools, like the Zoo’s Social Story, that meet the needs of people in our community and strengthen our relationship with our member base.

Joaquin shows his grandparents his educator position at the ZooShortly after Joaquin wrote this poem, his family contacted us to share that he had been accepted into a supported university program for students with disabilities. Joaquin’s acceptance to university is an excellent example of the type of impact inclusive programming for volunteers with disabilities can have for individuals. Joaquin is moving forward towards his goals–and during his time at Woodland Park Zoo he was a role model to other young people with disabilities. 

The current lack of diverse representation in the field of conservation is a challenge many Association of Zoos and Aquariums organizations face. When we accept and support volunteers with disabilities, we commit to actively pursuing a shift that embraces unique voices and contributions that ultimately make our organizations and the field of conservation more accessible and representative of our communities. By expanding our inclusive policies and removing barriers, we support community members with disabilities on their paths to create a world where everyone can raise their voice in support of conservation–and be heard.

Photo Credit: © Woodland Park Zoo

Top: Joaquin is proud of his accomplishments at the zoo and beyond, and Woodland Park Zoo is ecstatic to see what he brings to the field of conservation. Congratulations on your next big steps Joaquin!

Bottom: Joaquin introduces his grandparents to his educator position at the Zoo.

Tany Holzworth is the Lead Learning Facilitator for Inclusion at Woodland Park Zoo

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