The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo's Animal-Assisted Therapy Program for children with special needs serves approximately 70 groups annually. Participants suffer from a wide-range of physical and cognitive challenges including autism; and this cross cultural project includes participants from all of Jerusalem's diverse communities - Jewish, Christian and Muslim, both secular and orthodox, from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, of various ages, and with disabilities of varying degrees.
Of all the students in Israel, 2.6% are special education students. Of this number, 40% are children with learning disabilities, 25.7% suffer from some form of mental retardation, 7.5% have behavioral disorders, 4.1% have moderate multiple mental disabilities, 3.7% have developmental delays, 3% are hearing impaired, 3% have cerebral palsy, 2.7% have emotional disorders, 2.6 % are autistic and 8.9% suffer from other mental or emotional problems. This program serves those that live in Jerusalem.
The Program provides participants both emotional support and an opportunity to develop non-cognitive skills. Forming a connection with the animals involves emotion and trust. Adapting to the animal's needs fosters responsibility which, in turn, boosts confidence to perform tasks independently. Physical contact with the animals fulfills the need for personal connection - often absent in family situations. A zoological collection also creates varied experiences that no usual petting zoo can give.
Therapy happens in small groups on a weekly basis which significantly increases the prospect of successful treatment. The same counselor remains with each group for at least one school year, providing the intimacy and continuity which is key to the program's success. Children who have experienced many separations and disappointments can now depend on a trusted figure who works with them the whole year through. Counselors work closely with a psychologist to ensure a high level of professionalism.