Reaching Out to Veterans

November 2018

By Hillary Richard

The positive effects of animal therapy have been well documented, which is why Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities offer programs specifically for military personnel and their families.

Stuart Strahl, president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Zoological Society—Brookfield Zoo, started various veteran programs within a year of arriving at the Zoo.

Being around animals is extremely beneficial to depressed and traumatized individuals, who feel alone, isolated, misunderstood and helpless.

“There’s a lot of depression. For people who come from the PTSD of inner cities or combat or from any of those dark places of human existence, the therapeutic value of animals is unfathomable for those folks,” said Strahl.

Guests greet a veteran at Brookfield Zoo © Chicago Zoological Society-Brookfield Zoo

“Animals—and especially companion animals—save veterans’ lives. The best days some of these guys have are when they come to the Zoo. If you don’t have pets, zoos are the next best way to get up close to animals. We specialize in that,” he said. The Brookfield Zoo has some areas with domesticated animals that have a long history with humans, like dogs and Nubian goats.

The CZS is heavily engaged with the Chicago area military community. The Zoo gives family passes out through various VA groups, plus any active reserve military, retired military and VA card-holding veteran and their families get free admission. The Zoo regularly does a Wounded Warrior Ride, holds a special annual dinner for vets, and hosts families of military while loved ones complete residential programs nearby. On Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, groups line the pavilions to help connect vets with programs and resources they may need but don’t know about.

“The best thing that we do with veterans is that we get a whole bunch of them together. They think differently. When they’re in a positive setting and their endorphins are going, they’re talking about what things worked for them,” said Strahl.

In the Florida Keys, Mote Marine Laboratory has partnered with SCUBAnauts International and volunteer veterans to help replant endangered coral onto reefs, as both a type of dive therapy and a way to use veterans’ skillsets. Since 2007, Mote has been propagating and growing endangered staghorn coral (one of the first coral species listed as endangered in 2006), with a goal of creating tens of thousands of corals per year at their land- and sea-based nurseries. Organized teams of volunteers plant the new staghorn corals at dead or damaged reefs by driving a nail into the bottom of the old reef (which is just rock) and cable tying the corals directly to the nail.

“As simplistic as it sounds, sometimes the simplest answer is the best answer. It provides the most solid attachment method we’ve come up with where the coral will stay where you put it. It also lends itself towards a volunteer process,” said Erich Bartels, the staff scientist, program manager and dive safety officer at Mote Marine Laboratory, who manages the field-based program at Mote.

“I think the real beauty of it all really lies in the unique relationship built between the SCUBAnauts and the Combat Wounded Vets. The vets really take it very seriously that they’re working with kids, that they’re not only there to conduct a mission but to teach these kids that sometimes you get hurt but you have to get back up again,” said Allison Delaschmit, the Florida Keys community relations manager at Mote.

The problem, however, is finding the right volunteers. Enter the SCUBAnauts, a group of divers ages 12 to 18, who have all attained a level of science diving aptitude perfect for this task. The SCUBAnauts founder also founded Combat Wounded Vets, so the two merged for coral reef planting, a joint activity that became so successful, it’s now in its seventh year. In one recent dive, 40 people planted 300 corals in about 30 minutes.

“Your average person off the street lacks the focus and concentration for the task at hand and gets easily sidetracked. The combat wounded veterans are driven, mission-oriented, used to receiving briefings and take this seriously,” said Bartels, who added that they’re an easy group to work with because they give everything 100 percent and have a true sense of camaraderie and teamwork.

“I think the real beauty of it all really lies in the unique relationship built between the SCUBAnauts and the Combat Wounded Vets. The vets really take it very seriously that they’re working with kids, that they’re not only there to conduct a mission but to teach these kids that sometimes you get hurt but you have to get back up again,” said Allison Delaschmit, the Florida Keys community relations manager at Mote.

Facilities don’t need large-scale programs to benefit veterans and their families. Many offer free or discounted admission. The Audubon Nature Institute holds Military Appreciation Months every August and September where military ID holders receive a discount. Because of its location near one of the largest naval bases in the world, the Virginia Zoo has a lot of military visitors. About 30 percent of the 12,000 households signed up for family memberships are military homes. In addition to military discounts on gate admission and all levels of membership, the Zoo now provides a military photo ID card, so veterans don’t have to carry around their paperwork. Plenty of military events and special occasions are held on Virginia Zoo’s grounds in conjunction with groups like the USO and NATO. This year, the Zoo offered a dedicated week of camp for kids of military parents at a discount, which filled up almost immediately and proved to be very popular.

“We’re always looking for other opportunities to engage military here just because they’re such a big part of community. We’re always willing to consider suggestions and make it work for them,” said Lori Lampert, operations manager at Virginia Zoo.

Zoos and aquariums are some of the most visited cultural institutions worldwide, and they tend to be in urban areas—like the majority of veterans.

“Some of them are living in inner cities where the PTSD never stops. We know we can care for animals. How well do we care for humans?” asked Strahl.

Hillary Richard is a writer based in Bloomfield, N.J.

 

Find a Zoo or Aquarium Donate to AZA Contact Us Member Login Search the site