In my time volunteering at a wildlife museum, I observed hundreds of guests visiting the touch tank to learn more about our local undersea wildlife. While I didn’t work in the touch tank exhibit directly because I had difficulty holding horseshoe crabs, I did help to share information about the benefits of touch tanks for guests with vision loss, as well as develop guidelines for making the touch tank experience more accessible. Here are my thoughts on the benefits of visiting touch tanks with vision impairment, as well as a small tangent on how I identify which touch tanks treat their animals well.
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.
How should I describe animals to people who can’t see?
Here are the most common animals I have seen or worked with in touch tanks as well as a brief physical description that I would provide for guests with vision loss.
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. Epaulette sharks are smaller and darker, with a distinctive white-rimmed black spot on the back of their front fin. Nurse sharks are wider and larger with a gray color.
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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 these factors into consideration:
- How animals are cared for
- How long they stay in the touch tank
- If they are rotated into larger tanks
- How they are handled.
I only support zoos and aquariums that have been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). AZA 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.
Benefits of touch tanks for guests with vision loss
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 can 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.
Use gentle touch to learn about animals
Since people with vision loss often rely a lot on touch and tactile feedback, using gentle touch is a great way to learn about animals and what they look like. Many people who read Braille or are practicing pre-Braille skills are accustomed to using gentle touch, though may need help with orienting their hands to where the animal is located.
Getting to feel interesting textures
The smoothness of a manta ray, the raised texture of a starfish, and the scratchy texture of a nurse shark are all interesting textures that are not often found in a person’s daily living environment and are especially exciting for visitors with vision loss. I remember visiting the jellyfish touch tank at the National Aquarium and wondering if the jellyfish really lived up to their name and what they felt like when someone wasn’t being stung by one, and found the experience to be super interesting and helpful for developing mental models for what other species of jellyfish looked like.
Developing mental models
In this context, a mental model is an image of what someone believes an object looks like in the real world. People with vision loss often initially develop different looking mental models than people without vision loss due to their various conditions- as an example, my vision condition causes me to see blurred, double images that may be distorted or washed out depending on lighting conditions. Touch tanks allow visitors to develop stronger mental models of various sea creatures, which can be especially helpful in the classroom environment.
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.
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Additional tips for making touch tanks accessible for guests with visual impairment
- Give specific location information about where an animal is located, using terms such as in front, to the left, or to the right. Clock positions are also useful, i.e “the stingray is located at 1 o’clock”
- Avoid using terms such as here, there, or over there when referencing direction
- Ask guests if they would like to touch an animal before holding it in front of them- do not put the animal in front of them without saying anything
- Do not touch guest’s hands or move them without permission, unless they are in immediate danger of getting hurt
- Make sure that guests know where to find hand sanitizer before entering and exiting the touch tank area