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Up close encounters at 'Sensory Safari'

By Dr. MJ Schumacher Special to the Courier

Students from the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, located in Austin, visited Bandera County last week for an opportunity to hug a timber wolf, stick their heads in a hippopotamus jaws and measure the horns of a gazelle.
All this and more was accomplished safely when the students embarked on a Sensory Safari as guests of the Bandera Wildlife and Exotic Museum on Monday, April 28. The museum's board of directors was given a crash course on details of the mounts and their habitats so they could introduce the animals to the students and their guides. Each student was allowed to take as much time as needed at the various stations.
Genie Strickland, who arranged the visit, also facilitated videotaping the tour.
Marilee Frazier vividly explained the difference between antlers and horns as she helped the students stretch out their arms to gauge the size of the animals. Evoking memories of "The Lion King," a lion and wart hog brought smiles from the students and praise from Don Giles as they remembered the characters' names.
An ostrich and the timber wolf were favorites of other students because they appreciated the softness of those mounts. Boys being boys - and perhaps with a little encouragement from Mack Frazier - several young men had fun taking turns sticking their heads in a hippo skull.
Other students asked their guides to measure the animals to help them imagine the size. However, one student proudly announced she did not need her guide to do that as she spread out her arms measuring the length and the breadth of a musk ox.
When a student caught her plastic glove on a bear's claw, Board Chairman Sully Woodland - ever the gentleman - said, "No problem." After freeing her hand, Woodland quickly helped her put on another glove. Gloves are used in the sensory exploration to help protect the mounts from oils in hands.
Directors Cindy and Joe McMullan assisted the group with general questions as the students waited for their up-close-and-personal encounters with the animals. Not surprisingly, directors gained just as much - if not more - from the experience as they watched the students' faces literally light up after each discovery.
The museum will house seven other dioramas and an International Hall with over 100 mounts from all over the world which will have panoramas painted to reflect the habitats of the animals. However, the Sensory Safari may prove to be the museum's most popular and unique installation.
The Sensory Safari, with state-of-the-art technology, is designed as an educational experience accessible to everyone that will include the opportunity to touch the animals during guided tours.
Juan Infante has hosted several of these Sensory Safaris at his Medina ranch. The board of directors looks forward to sharing this experience with many more visitors when the Bandera Exotic Wildlife Museum opens its site in the City of Bandera.