We talk with Richard Østerballe, the Managing Director of Givskud Zoo, about their efforts to make the zoo as special needs friendly as possible.
Photographs: Givskud Zoo / Unsplash
Text: Michaela Medveďová & Sara R. Newell
In the July issue, we brought you an overview of zoos, safari parks, and aquariums from all over Denmark, ranked based on their accessibility and handicap-friendly facilities and services. Givskud Zoo, a safari park near Vejle in south Jutland, won our hearts ranking. We awarded them a first place not only because they provide all the necessary facilities and services but also because they go above and beyond in their efforts, for example, by offering specially designed swings for children who are wheelchair users.
Q: Why cater to people with special needs?
A: It's a rather old initiative. Givskud Zoo is a very season-run institution. We're closed in wintertime, open around Easter, and close in week 43. We're in our peak season and expect 5000 visitors daily, so it's very crowded.
But in the low seasons, we tend to have a lot of people with special needs or living in institutions because they don't like being part of the rush. So in the beginning, many years ago, we had almost an agreement with some of these institutions to visit in the out season - there's no crowd, no rush, they can take their time. But we also started thinking we should try to aim to include more facilities for people with special needs.
Q: How did you make this possible?
A: We looked at not just the service facilities but also the options for special needs people to have a good experience with the animals and the enclosures.
For almost 20 years, we've been part of God Adgang ( or "good access"; an association that provides information about activities and companies that chose to become registered at God Adgang).
And around the time of building the gorilla enclosure, we discussed with God Adgang because we wanted to ensure that special needs people could get around the enclosure while still making it exciting. In that enclosure, we have several pathways that are specially designed for people in wheelchairs, so they also, for example, have to pass through water. Some of the passes are also a little bit too steep. But that was actually in agreement with God Aadgang, who said: Well, it's okay because we also want to have some challenges from time to time.
And about five years ago - when they became available - we also started implementing special play tools designed for special needs people. So far, we only have these tools in the largest playground. For example, we have a specially designed swing you can enter with a wheelchair. When you arrive as a guest and want to use the swing, you need a code from the staff to access it as there is a fence around it.
Q: What other facilities do you offer?
A: All the standard service facilities that are a part of God Adgang. There was a star system for some years, and we were one of just five 5-star attractions. There has to be a certain number of accessible toilets, and they have to be accessible along with restaurants and other places in the zoo. There also has to be a certain number of parking spaces, and we try to put them as close as possible to the entrance.
But beyond that, it's integrating special needs people and their options to experience the animals. For example, in 2021, we were the first zoo in Denmark to start using the sunflower lanyard (or solsikkesnoren, a symbol of invisible disability).
Q: Why did you join the Sunflower programme?
A: When you arrive in a wheelchair, it's obvious you have a disability, but many people have other special needs you can't see. When the Sunflower programme started in Denmark, we were the third or fourth place to join - and now, more and more are joining.
I still don't think the general public understands what it is - we included a sunflower in our name tags. People ask us whether it's connected to the wildflowers we planted along the road. But more and more will know when all major attractions in Denmark recognize the sunflower lanyard.
Q: So, what's next in the zoo's plans?
A: We have a strategy that every time we make something new, we must integrate the skills and tools we have now. I have a staff of people keen on new things, so if a novelty turns up, they will let me know, and we'll see if it can be implemented. At Givskud, we have regular meetings with all section leaders and safety representatives - and at every meeting, features for people with special needs are part of the plan.
We also consult God Adgang regularly - they have a visiting schedule and come to the zoo every second year. We still have a handful of comments and recommendations from the last visit that we need to resolve, for example, a slope is too steep, or a door is hinged in the wrong way if people are entering with a wheelchair. Working with them can be inspiring - this is what they work with every day, so they know if there are any new adjustments and will inform us.
Q: Do you receive any funds or assistance?
A: We did receive funding for the playground - for the wheelchair swing, wheelchair trampolines, and a wheelchair carousel. We also got support for buying an adult-sized changing table and a lift. There are three funds that are very keen on helping us - Vanførefonden, Aage og Johanne Louis-Hansens Fond, and Bevica Fonden.
It's not a complicated process to apply - the procedure is easy, and they have a short reply time. So if others are in doubt, many funds can be donated to improve accessibility."
Q: In your opinion, why are other attractions not as disability-friendly?
A: Denmark is not that big, so all major zoos and attractions network with each other. In the association of Danish zoos, we have 15 members, but there are more in Denmark. At the top level, we have three primary goals: education, conservation, and research. For smaller zoos with fewer visitors, I would think they can't afford a lot of these facilities - spending more than a hundred thousand for just one tool.
Construction at the park can also sometimes be challenging and expensive. For instance, we've just opened a new penguin enclosure this year, possibly the most expensive we've ever made. In addition, visitors with disabilities influence a considerable part of it - whenever there are stairs, there must be a slope and the right angles. But anybody can use these facilities. It's just as fun walking up the ramp as taking the stairs. So it's not a big problem - you just have to think about it.
It's a pleasure to see a zoo that tries to make all its attractions as accessible as possible and puts effort into acquiring specially designed play tools. So on your next free weekend, give Givskud a go!