HAVANA, Jan. 28th Baby jaguars and an intricately coloured endemic boa known as a “maja” are among the exotic animals at Cuba’s national zoo that parents and teachers say provide exceptionally effective therapy for children with special needs.
Children pet jaguars and play with their paws, stroke the cool, wet skin of snakes and give milk to a zebu cow as part of a program to help people with special needs overcome their fears, said zookeepers.
“In the Americas, we are pioneers in working with these exotic species,” said Yaima Pueblas, director of zoo development and animal therapy specialist.
“As well as breaking down the barriers of fear…it also encourages them to care for and protect the environment.”
The program has proven a rare bright spot for children with Down’s syndrome, autism and other special needs, teachers and parents told Reuters, during a particularly difficult time on the Caribbean island hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis.
The program is free in Cuba, where education at all levels is publicly funded.
“They are motivated to come to the zoo,” said teacher Maraidis Ramirez. “In class, I can already see that they are making progress.”
Javier Lavaumena said the program changed the direction of his son’s life.
“We have seen great accomplishments with the children…they have made many changes in their lives, at school and at home,” he said.
Cuba’s National Zoo is Cuba’s favourite attraction, with 1,473 specimens of more than 120 species, including large animals like elephants and rhinos.