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Monarto Zoo visit

by Robyn Perham
Former Access Consultant

Robyn is an avid wheelchair traveller and accessibility champion. This article on her recent visit to the Monarto Zoo was part of an eight day holiday enroute to Adelaide.

After two restful days in the natural serenity of the Pine Plains Lodge near Patchewollock, we'd entered South Australia and were enjoying Renmark.

Michael, knowing I love monkeys, had uncovered the opportunity to get up close and personal with a capogen at Bredl's Reptile Park on the edge of town. What a thrill!

Robyn cuddling an inquisitive capogen

Next we were heading towards Hahndorf and looking forward to the pig clapping event. However enroute we learnt that the restaurant in Hahndorf only had pig clapping banquets on the last Sunday of each month now, but we were first on the list of bookings … if we wanted to come back in February, as January and December were exempt! Isn't it always the way?

So, while I drove, Michael got busy finding out how, exactly, we could get to the Monarto Zoo, which was reportedly close by. All along the way we'd asked at information centres about this attraction, but couldn't find anything about it in the usual tourism booklets and brochures. We had only known about it because, when we'd decided to drive towards Adelaide for our holiday, Michael had picked up an old brochure at a McDonalds that depicted a map of South Australia. Upon closer inspection, I'd spotted a tiny photo of a lion and suspected it must be some kind of a zoo. It looked promising as it was in the area we'd decided to head for.

I Googled, and sure enough, here was an endangered species breading programme that was an off-shoot of the Adelaide Zoo. I'd emailed and asked "Are you wheelchair accessible?" "Well, sort of, but not really." They did have an accessible bus. "Ask at the counter upon arrival to sort it all out." They'd not been open to the public for all that long (1993), although they'd begun their project in 1983. Their 1,000 hectares had also been a part of the Great Green Corridor folly. The zoo's web site, although it did not offer a wheelchair sign to inform me of their equitable accessibility, does claim to be open to the public on an "international standard for recreation and education". So we decided to risk it.

Arriving at the zoo, we were displaying our wheelchair parking sign, and we paid for two concession tickets. This looked good. If they were taking our money, they must have been able to offer an equitable experience!

Without adequate signage, we couldn't find our way to the disability parking, so we parked under a shady tree. The mercury was up into the mid to high 30's now and Michael, who is my willing and loving wheelchair pusher, was beginning to melt! Trip hazards met us right from the get-go. Then we couldn't readily find the loo. I was in the mood for a mega-latte by now! We headed for the café but found we could only buy coffee in a very small cup. Shame.

"What can we do using the chair?" we asked at the counter. They pondered us. "You can go and have a look at the feeding of the meerkats," we were assured, and "the wheelchair bus" goes at 2pm from down there. "Where are the chimps?" I asked. Oh yes, you can get a wheelchair down to them. Just go down that way."

Well, the three old male meerkats were feeling put out about two tortoises having been assigned to their cage that morning, so they were not in the mood for pear, and anyway, it was too hot and they were feeling too arthritic. "Why aren't you breeding them?" we asked. "We can't get females or a permit as if a breeding couple got out of this enclosure, we'd have another "rabbit" problem!" she said.

Chimps it was. "Just down there" ended up being about 500m, over partly-accessible - just - gravel paths. It was down a hill and up a hill, past the sleeping yellow-footed wallabies. At the end of this strenuous excursion the impossibly steep ramp with no resting phases built into it was the icing on the cake. When we did get up to their brand new two million dollar chimp enclosure, it was great!

Michael, by the time we reached the monkeys, was just exhausted. The chimps were, indeed, wonderfully see-able, as they dozed in the heat and slept their summer lunch off, but considering the zoo had spent that kind of money, I wondered why a few hundred couldn't have been spent on my needs. In any case, who had signed off on this build? We returned back, through the heat, to catch the bus.

The soft bark underfoot in the waiting area for the bus was a bog-hazard for wheelchairs, but in any case, the low level bus pulled up and the ramp was folded out, nice and simple. We eagerly boarded, but my chair wasn't lashed and I was at the mercy of the driver! So were the other passenger's toes from my swaying wheelchair. I did my best to brace myself and hope I wasn't about to be sued!

Passing right past the chimp exhibit (couldn't we have been collected from there?) we went on to see the giraffe exhibit where we alighted. Again, inadequate signage had us going in the wrong direction and as the talk and the feeding of the eland and other animals was "imminent", we tried to hurry so as not to miss out.

This exhibit was wonderful. Accessible, with all animals close, giving full views out across the park and the giraffes were right there! The keeper was friendly and informative and great fun, telling "behind the scenes" stories which we all loved, being made to feel privy to their breeding programme and some of that which was going on here.

We retraced our steps to await the next bus, which again was reportedly imminent, though we waited patiently under the shelter provided, trying to escape the heat, for ages.

Then two buses came at once, but neither came to pick us up under this shelter, which we found pretty odd.

Michael went to ask advice from one of the drivers, and everyone else deserted, leaving me literally bogged and stuck in the thick bark-chip! No, we were supposed to be up there and getting on this safari bus if we were to see the rest of the park, so come on!

Michael came and rescued me and rushed me up to the bus - we didn't want to be left out here amongst who-knows-what! But there was no rush as the bus driver and her volunteer zoo assistant could not get this fancy, automated wheelchair lift to work. "Someone" I was informed, "has used the controls to make the lift rise … while it was still tucked in under the bus … and this has bent the works!" My silent question was, "So why hasn't your maintenance dept been informed?" This poor lady duly got the darned thing down, untangled and working and up I went, barely fitting within the confines of this lift. Once in, I was very aware that I was blocking the view of the family sitting behind us, and had I not been aware, I'd have soon been made aware as each time we stopped to view an exhibit, their kids didn't seem to mind climbing all over me and the chair so as not to miss out on taking their photos. Happily, no one was hurt.

The exhibits were terrific and we got a good view of the hyenas, rhinos, cheetahs and lions etc as we went around. The walking tracks would not have been accessible or "do-able" with a wheelchair. I understood that. I'm not a flat-earther (one who expects the whole earth to be bulldozed flat and cemented to provide me with access) and I was happy just seeing everything from the bus. People could, apparently, book in to pat the cheetah. However, being in a wheelchair, I was considered unsuitable as children and small people are considered to be "prey" by carnivores, so I happily bowed to their decisions.

Arriving back at the centre, I patiently awaited the untangling of the lift in order to get me out of the bus. As time dragged on, I found myself hoping no one would scream "FIRE!" as I was too high up to be able to jump from here. The lift was proving to be more than the driver could manage. A chivalrous English tourist stepped forward and asked if this lady could do with help from someone stronger. She readily agreed and within the next second he'd cut his finger open right to the flesh! This, I informed her later, targeted her as a sitting duck for litigation. In turn, she would have been able to sue her employers for not providing her with a workable product and expecting her to use the damaged goods provided. Happily for all concerned, Australia is not yet as litigious as (for example) America.

Duly unloaded, eventually, we went back to the canteen and did our own safari looking for the toilets. At that time I asked for a complaints form and filled it in. As I delivered this to the lady behind the desk, she was patient enough to listen intently while I explained who I was and what I did/used to do about disability access over the past 15 years. "Among other awards and so on, I was the recipient of a Queensland Individuals Award for Excellence," I explained. I'm frequently asked to speak at conferences and such on this subject and I've done bits and pieces all over Australia. I even audited the gay games! Most of my work has been in Queensland where I operated my own business - Barrier Free Lifestyles - and I had previously been a member of the Association of Consultants in Access, Australia Inc. Google me if you like," I ended. "Try my name now, Perham, and my past married name of Gobert. And if you have someone who is interested, I'll be in this area overnight and I'd gladly volunteer my time and knowledge to give you an audit for many different kinds of disability. We could cover aged and infirm, people of short stature, vision impaired and the blind, hearing impaired and people using chairs." Within half an hour our mobile phone rang and we were speaking with their health and safety officer, Peter Collins.

Peter and I made a date for 11am the next morning, and Michael and I retuned to meet this charming, open and helpful man. He welcomed my input as, although their problem boiled down to "dollars", the work that was already in the pipeline could be better structured after this audit to avoid the need for costly retrofitting in the future. Their spotlight seemed to be shifting from mainly being about the breeding programme to focusing on what they could offer people in order to make more of a profit. With this in mind, I felt I was in the right place at the right time.

I eagerly greeted Peter and, finding common ground - undertaking not to become defensive about what had already been achieved - we worked together for the next three hours to provide an informative and positives/negatives audit of the zoo.

Collaring one of the bosses who made the mistake of coming out of his office at just the "right" time, I began our assessment by playing a game. Asking each man to show me their money, I too produced my $50 note from my person.

We all agreed that our money looked the same and was, indeed, legal tender. I then asked Wally to go and stand in the corner and to stay there reading the poster on the chimps until we were good and ready for him. We three then proceeded to joke and laugh and have a nice time for the next few minutes until Wally called, "OK, I get it! I really do. I understand your point about disability user-ability."

"So you were excluded, but hang on … wasn't your $50 the same as our money?" I asked, and was then informed that the zoo had a policy of letting the carer in for free … but that had not been our experience. "Your ticket price should reflect what you have to offer me, equitably!" I advised. "I work full time and I pay all of the same taxes that you pay. Yet every time I go out my front door I am only enabled to live one third of a life by the infrastructure of places like this and of wider Australia. Either through lack of actual access, or lack of use-ability. Do you know of any other minority who is expected to wear that?" I asked. "And, each time we go out, we usually end up doing exactly this - raising awareness of the access needs of people with disabilities." There were huge gulps all 'round, and the ugly issue of "lack of ready funds" was raised once more and discussed.

I'm sorry Australians, but if you're going to open a facility that claims to be "of an international standard, for education and recreation" for the public, disability makes up one in four of your public. Other countries, our social and economic counterparts, provide tax breaks for those who build in universal design in regards to access and user-ability … so what is wrong with this picture, Australia?

Even a poor country like Lebanon, Peter recounted, was rebuilding after its war with disability access in mind. Salute! Other countries do take this seriously!

I've asked Prime Minister Rudd for an apology to me and my ilk, as I know damned well that my life will be over and I will still not be able to live equitably in my own country, even though I've been being milked for the privilege for 20 years, regardless of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Legislation!

This whole thing is a farce and who's fault is it? You might be surprised to know, it's YOURS! This subject is not being made into an issue of importance in this country and "the need for people with disabilities to equitably access their communities and take part in life" is continually swept under our collective carpets. Please become aware and speak out actively on our behalf?

Peter and I parted with the understanding that although everything can not be done at once, we can all do something at once, and he agreed that things like yellow paint on trip hazard edges and replacing damaged boards could be started almost immediately, so there we go - positive change is on the way. Something as simple as talking to the cleaning staff about placement of the bin and the sanitary disposal unit was taken care of right then and there! Change!

Next: Pandamonium

Robyn and husband Michael at the Panda exhibit

The pandas from China had been in the news and Peter, who is connected to the Adelaide Zoo, was showing us his pictures of them and how accessible they were. Of course we undertook to go and have a look, and while we were there we'd do an impromptu "audit" of that facility and get back to Peter.

The Panda exhibit was a bit chaotic. We were expected to go through this whole rigmarole of pushing the chair through a maze of ribbons that took us around and around the mulberry bush before we could get anywhere near them. No exception was made for a wheelchair, and I'm afraid the zoo would have found a few bollards with their ribbons out of place by the time our frustrations boiled over with this seemingly ridiculous procedure. I rang the zoo for comment and was told, somewhat tersely, "People still do not realise that we have the pandas for 10 years and they are rushing us, thinking they have to get in while the pandas are still here. So this is an attempt at crowd control and if you come back in a couple of months, people will have gotten the message and none of those barriers will be in place." Hardly satisfactory or disability friendly, was it?

The pandas were accessible, and it was delightful to see them. The young male is around 17 years of age in human terms and he is feeling his oats! So he is more active than the female. One family in line had driven from Melbourne that morning just to see these lovely animals, so they're popular.

One monkey display tickled our sense of humour as we noticed that this red-rumped mob was called the Hay-mai-dri-ass Baboons. Ya need some cream for that?

We found the Adelaide zoo to be pretty good as far as access went. A few trip hazards that the zoo could be mindful of and include in their maintenance programme, and a frightening ordeal awaits the unsuspecting wheelchair user over the back of the sea lions pool, but it appears that this area is awaiting development. Still, signage could direct chair users away from using that path.

We sang to the hippos … "What a lovely life you have to be a hip-po-pot-o-mass" as they bathed, and we must have been good as two came over to listen.

I made a noise like a whistling kite that had the meerkat on alarm duty there for a moment or two - until he sprung me! The African wild dogs were alert and busy, and the otters ate their fish and squeaked their approval. We thoroughly enjoyed the lion and the sea lion feeding, and we even rescued a fellow tourist from an over-friendly goat which was hell-bent on trying to escape the kids petting enclosure. Then he punished us by trying to eat our clothes!

I undertook to let Peter Collins know of my findings upon my return home in the sure knowledge that any issues would be addressed.

Postscript

There's terrific news re the Monarto and Adelaide Zoo's … The audit I did is to be (and some has already been) implemented. The CEO's wife at Monarto has made it her new mission to be a disability champion there.

Pine Plains Lodge could also offer wheelchair/disability friendly accommodation quite easily by moving a few bits of furniture around, and I feel they would, quite happily do that if they were told that someone in a chair was coming.

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