A Hamilton father is appalled after he claims a Shaw’s Bird Park volunteer said his toddler, who is intellectually disabled, “shouldn’t be there” and accused him of animal cruelty.
Hayder Abed is seeking an apology after the woman allegedly shouted at his three-year-old son who has Fragile X syndrome – a genetic disorder which causes him to have severe anxiety – and accused him of scaring the birds.
Abed said the experience was “abhorrent” and “offensive”, and his son was discriminated against on the basis of his disability.
But Shaw’s Bird Park told the Herald discrimination was “absolutely not the intention of our volunteer” and her comment that the guinea pig cages were “not the right environment for him” was about the protection of the animals.
The volunteer claimed the guinea pigs were scared and “hiding in fear”, and she advised Abed and his son that loud noises and rough handling can be harmful to small animals.
“We do our best to provide a space for the public to enjoy, however the park is not suitable for every case. This is the first incident of this nature and is a one-off situation,” the park said in a statement.
The pair had travelled to the Glenview park early on Saturday morning to avoid crowds.
Abed said his son loves animals and he ran straight to the guinea pigs’ and rabbits’ cages to pet them.
Sometimes when his son gets excited, he can have a high-pitched voice and can flap his hand, Abed said, but he appeared calm when petting the animals.
“This employee came out shouting, it was a very unpleasant way of speaking to a three-year-old.
“He’s scaring all the birds [she said]. I was like, ‘He’s not doing anything wrong … he’s got an intellectual disability’.
“She was like, ‘I don’t care, he shouldn’t be here if he’s got this problem’.
“She became more aggressive and I said, ‘Clearly disabled people are not welcome’. I picked up my son and I said, ‘We’ve got to go’.”
Abed said his son didn’t appear to notice, but he felt his son was discriminated against on the basis of his disability.
“My son has challenges but he deserves to enjoy his life.”
In a statement to the Herald the park said: “The child was chasing and screaming at the guinea pigs who were running away and hiding in fear.From about 10 metres away [the volunteer] called out ‘Hey, stop that’.
“He repeated that the child had autism and can’t control the screaming.She said (and repeated many times) that ‘this is not the environment for him then’.Whilst this conversation was happening, voices were raised in order to hear each other.The neighbouring cage houses lorikeets and they started being loud and the child started to shout back to them.”
Abed’s wife complained to the park that evening after hearing of the incident, but Abed said the family has not received an apology.
“I just felt it was a very cold response. You would think someone would have time to reflect on their behaviour and how our son was made to feel,” he said.
Abed said since moving to New Zealand from the UK in 2019, he believes his son has not been discriminated against.
“I felt appalled on the one hand, on the other hand it made me feel very sad.”
He urged the park to make changes to avoid another person with disabilities feeling discriminated against.
“I would just like them to apologise for what they did, and take on board when people have a problem and to educate themselves really.
“I wouldn’t want this to happen to anyone else. I don’t want another disabled person to go through this again.”
But Shaw’s Bird Park said “there is no discrimination here”.
“There are many times on any given day that children are reminded to be quiet and gentle and why.
“The guinea pig cages are the only areas that are not suitable for loud noises so there are plenty of other activities available to entertain his son.”
In Facebook message sent in response to complaints made by Abed’s wife, shared with the Herald, the park said: “Unfortunately the guinea pig cages are not the right environment for your son’s challenges.
“The sign on the door explains that loud noises can be harmful to the animals. Our priority is always to keep the animals safe and protected.”
Another message read: “…that decision to put him in an environment that his harmful to the animals was your decision not his.
“We absolutely embrace special needs here but also keep the animal’s safety first in mind.”
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