Child with fragile X syndrome ‘discriminated against’ at Hamilton bird park, father says

Hayder Abed and her 3-year-old son visited Shaw’s Bird Park in Hamilton on Saturday. Photo / Supplied

A Hamilton father is dismayed after claiming that a Shaw’s Bird Park volunteer said his toddler, who has an intellectual disability, “shouldn’t be there” and accused him of animal cruelty.

Hayder Abed is asking for an apology after the woman allegedly yelled at her three-year-old son with Fragile X syndrome – a genetic condition that makes him severely anxious – and accused him of scaring birds.

Abed said the experience was “odious” and “offensive”, and that her son had been discriminated against because of his disability.

But Shaw’s Bird Park told the Herald that discrimination was “absolutely not our volunteer’s intention” and his comment that guinea pig cages were “not the right environment for him” was about animal welfare.

The volunteer claimed that the guinea pigs were scared and “hid in fear”, and she informed Abed and her son that loud noises and rough handling can be harmful to the small animals.

“We are doing our best to provide a space that the public can enjoy, but the park is not suitable for all cases. This is the first incident of this nature and it is a unique situation,” said the park in a statement.

The couple had made their way to Glenview Park early Saturday morning to avoid the crowds.

Abed said his son loved animals and had rushed straight into the cages of guinea pigs and rabbits to pet them.

Sometimes when his son is excited he can have a high pitched voice and clap his hands, Abed said, but he seemed calm when petting the animals.

“This employee came out screaming, it was a very nasty way to talk to a three year old.

“He scares all 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 got more aggressive and I said, ‘Clearly disabled people are not welcome. I took my son and said,’ We have to go. ‘

Abed said his son did not seem to notice it, but felt his son was discriminated against because 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 yelling at the guinea pigs fleeing and hiding in fear. About 10 meters away [the volunteer] yelled ‘Hey, stop that’.

“He reiterated that the child was autistic and couldn’t control the screaming. She said (and repeated over and over) that ‘this is not the environment for him then.’ As this conversation unfolded , voices were raised to hear each other. The neighboring cages are home to lorikeets and they started making noise and the child started yelling at them. “

Abed’s wife complained to the park that evening after hearing about the incident, but Abed said the family had not received an apology.

“I just felt it was a very cold response. You would think someone would have time to think about his behavior and how our son felt,” he said.

Abed said since leaving the UK for New Zealand in 2019 he believed his son had not been discriminated against.

“I felt appalled on the one hand, on the other hand it made me very sad.”

Shaw's Bird Park on Hall Road in Hamilton.  Photo / Supplied
Shaw’s Bird Park on Hall Road in Hamilton. Photo / Supplied

He urged the park to make changes to prevent another disabled person from feeling discriminated against.

“I just want them to apologize for what they did, take it into account when people have a problem and really educate themselves.

“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 in a given day that children are reminded to be calm and gentle and why.

“Guinea pig cages are the only areas that aren’t suitable for loud noises, so there are plenty of other activities available to keep your son entertained.”

In a Facebook post sent in response to complaints by Abed’s wife, shared with the Herald, the park said, “Unfortunately, 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 animals. Our priority is always to keep animals safe and protected.”

Another message read: “… this decision to put him in an environment that is harmful to animals was your decision, not his.

“We absolutely embrace special needs here, but also keep the safety of the animal in mind in the first place.”

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