Often, the first spontaneous responses you hear from guests at an aquarium or zoo are “Cool! Can I touch it?” or “Ouuu, what does that animal feel like?” The desire to touch a Hawksbill sea turtle to know how hard its shell is, or to pet a Sea otter to feel how thick its fur is, is strong for both children and adults.
Is it important for our guests to have such a tactile experience? The answer lies within the goals of each institution as to whether guests’ experiences should be confined to visual stimulation only. However, touching is one way that humans “read” objects and their characteristics. Allowing guests to encounter an object or animal through touch usually improves the quality of their experience, and may result in greater understanding and appreciation.
Health and safety concerns can make touching live animals problematic, and doing so is usually discouraged by the animal care staff. Though some aquariums and zoos provide touch pools or petting areas, most interpreters and educators have to be creative if they want the public to have a “hands-on,” tactile experience.
One route toward helping guests discover through touch is to provide them with substitute specimens. Use a variety of interesting objects having different textures, shapes, and sizes. Objects such as pelts, dry specimens, plastic replicas, and toys can describe what is seen and heighten your guests’ tactile experience.
Be certain you know the reason that you are planning a “hands-on” experience. What is the objective of the experience? What additional information will direct contact with an object provide? How will touching help the public appreciate, and be concerned about, animal life?
The interpreter creating a touching experience must have the skills to achieve the objectives of such an experience. The educator must guide the visitor’s discovery through touch toward relevant meaning through the effective use of questioning, analogies, and dramatic demonstrations, rather than simply by a recitation of facts.
Touching can reveal specific kinds of information about an animal. A touch may suggest where an animal lives, how it has adapted to its environment, or how it protects itself. For example, touching a sea lion pelt can lead guests to hypothesize about the temperature of the water a sea lion lives in.
When using touch specimens, interpreters must be prepared to answer difficult questions. For instance, a guest may ask, “I thought Bowhead whales were protected from hunting, how did you get that piece of baleen?” Interpreters should be provided with answers to such questions by their institutions, or should refer the questioner to a staff member if the interaction is confrontational.
By their very nature, aquariums and zoos already provide dazzling visual experiences. We can enhance their wonderful exhibits and displays by also offering tactile experiences. In this way, aquariums and zoos become active places of learning, where opportunities to touch evoke verbal responses, occasional yelps, and most importantly, questions.
Betsey Starinchak, Interpretative Services Manager, John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Illinois.
Starinchak, Betsey. “It Works for Me…Sharing successful techniques and ideas.,” The Docent Educator 4.3 (Spring 1995): 19.