Harvey the tortoise seemed bewildered by the sudden attention as 9-year-old Anthony Cancel tapped his shell with two fingers and the other children quickly followed suit.
“This is our special guest today,” said Andy Bortzner, part of the Brevard Zoo’s educational staff and a child psychology major at Brevard Community College. “Only I can hold him, but you can touch him to see what he feels like.”
The children, eight in all, watched Harvey intently before raising their hands and peppering Bortzner with questions: Is Harvey a boy or a girl? Where does he come from? Does he like the land or the sea?
Most, but not all of them, including Anthony, have been diagnosed with autism, a complex developmental disability that interferes with social interactions and communication skills. On this particular day, however, none of that mattered, as these ordinary barriers seemed to ease amid the excitement of a tree house, a cave and the lagoon landing in the kids’ section of the Brevard Zoo.
The zoo setting is part of a new collaborative effort between the zoo’s educational staff and Florida Institute of Technology’s Scott Center for Autism Treatment to provide a model program for autistic children and their families called Zoo Quest.