In my time volunteering at a wildlife museum, I had the opportunity to observe many of the benefits of visiting touch tanks, especially for people with vision impairment. I love getting to learn about different animals and seeing them up close, even though I may be skeptical to pet them at first (hello, horseshoe crab). Here are some of the benefits of visiting touch tanks with vision impairment, as well as my thoughts on ensuring animals are well cared for.
What is a touch tank?
A touch tank is an interactive aquarium that consists of shallow water, sand, and marine wildlife. With the guidance of staff, visitors can reach in and touch the different animals and learn more about them in a tactile way. Touch tanks are most often found at zoos and aquariums, though can also be found at other museums as well.
Common animals found in a touch tank and how to describe them
Here are the most common animals I have seen or worked with in touch tanks as well as a brief physical description:
Horseshoe crabs have two highly distinctive features- their brown colored u-shaped shell and their six to nine inch long spiked tails. Their eyes are at the front part of their shells, and their underside features their small claws, legs, and mouth. In total, horseshoe crabs measure about two feet long, with females larger than the males.
Hermit crabs live in shells and have six legs as well as two large claws. Their bodies are pink or brown in color and can get to be as big as a coconut, though most fit in the palm of a hand.
Spider crabs have round and spiny shells with eight long and distinct legs, with two claws in the front. They are light brown in color and do not move very fast compared to other crabs. Their leg span can be up to one foot, though most touch tanks feature smaller specimens.
Starfish come in a variety of colors and sizes, with arms originating from a central point on their body- their head is in the center and their mouth is on the bottom. Touch tanks often have an age minimum for visitors who want to touch the starfish since they can be easily stressed.
Manta rays, or as my friend calls them, “sea pancakes,” have broad heads and broad triangular fins with a long pointed tail, with eyes on either side of their head. They are gray or brown in color and may have additional spotted markings depending on the species.
Nurse shark/epaulette sharks
Nurse sharks and epaulette sharks are slow moving sharks, with touch tank specimens usually being around three feet long. Nurse sharks are wider and larger with a gray color, while epaulette sharks are smaller and darker in color, with a distinctive white-rimmed black spot on the back of their front fin.
Are touch tanks ethical?
There have been many questions posed about the ethics of touch tanks, and these conversations are important to have. It is necessary to take into consideration how animals are cared for, how long they stay in the touch tank, if they are rotated into larger tanks, and how they are handled. For this reason, I only support zoos and aquariums that have been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which has an increased standard for animal care that is higher than normal federal regulation. I also observe the behavior of other volunteers and staff members to ensure animals are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Learning about animals in an interactive way
It can be difficult to imagine what a crab looks like if you have never seen one before. Thanks to touch tanks, visitors can learn interesting facts about each animal and then have the opportunity to use touch to learn more. For example, visitors can learn about how horseshoe crabs are considered living fossils, since they have been around for over 450 million years, and then can see how they are shaped like a horseshoe with their u-shaped body.
Practice petting animals gently
Learning how to touch things gently is a very important skill. This is especially true for people with vision impairment, since they rely so much on touch to get input about the world. While I strongly discourage using live animals as a first introduction to learning how to touch things gently, it is definitely great practice, especially since it may be an unfamiliar texture.
Getting to feel interesting textures
When I first went to put my hand in a touch tank full of manta rays, I found myself wondering what it would feel like, and also questioned if I would immediately freak out over the sensation. I ended up spending hours at the manta ray tank, fascinated by their smooth and slick texture as they swam underneath my hands. From the sandpaper skin of sharks to the hard shell of crabs, touch tanks feature many different textures that are hard to replicate outside of nature.
Touch tanks aren’t just designed for people with vision impairments. By going to a touch tank, visitors can interact with all sorts of different people and have the opportunity to practice sharing, taking turns, talking to others, and more. One of my friends who volunteered at a touch tank would frequently talk about how much all of the kids loved it, even the ones who were normally shy or reserved.
An introduction to conservation
Conservation is deeply important and encourages people to take care of the world around them and ensure that wildlife is able to continue to survive and thrive for generations to come. By visiting a touch tank, visitors can better understand the impact that their choices can have on species survival and how they can help preserve populations of native species in their communities.
Touch tanks are a great learning experience for everyone, regardless of sight level, as long as they are run responsibly and with animal health and safety as a top priority. That said, the benefits of visiting touch tanks with vision impairment are priceless and can provide lasting a lasting impression for all involved.