Creating a fun safe-haven for children with disabilities hoping to see wildlife is a global effort that has lasted over a quarter century.
And it is spreading widely among Japanese zoos, albeit normally as a one-day event, as they are embracing the twilight by opening their gates at night or reserving entire days exclusively for those with special needs and their families.
Kick-started by a zoo in the Netherlands in 1996, the "Dreamnight at the Zoo" initiative has percolated worldwide.
Currently, nearly 300 zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens in over 40 countries host events under the program, according to civic and philanthropic groups as well as event sponsors involved.
The initiative has caught on in Japan, with more than 30 facilities having run events, including some with no age limits.
One event for disabled children was held in mid-August at the Chausuyama Zoo in Nagano, central Japan, after the facility's regular opening hours.
Cheers could be heard among the some 130 disabled children and parents who visited. Staff provided tours and explainers as the guests enjoyed watching the lions roam about their enclosures, while the children were given a chance to feed various animals.
"This is so cute," Miwa Takahashi, a 14-year-old wheel-chaired junior high school student, said with a smile as she stroked a guinea pig. Her father, Hidenori, 53, said he often feels anxious when walking with Miwa on crowded narrow streets during other zoo visits.
He simply welcomed the event, saying, "We can relax without worrying about what other people think of us."
One person involved in the initiative said such an event "creates opportunities for disabled children and their families to make memories together with a sense of security."
The zoo's event was first proposed by one of its staff members and began in 2010 after complaints from visitors about accessibility at the site -- difficulty wheelchair users have using sharp slopes in particular.
This led the zoo to recognize the importance of having barrier-free access and consider plans to change the facility's design and settings.
The Adventure World leisure complex in Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture, which features a zoo, aquarium and amusement park, joined the Dreamnight initiative in 2017 and began hosting all-day events instead of only holding them during evenings in 2021.
Some 4,000 children and family members visited the complex in 2022. In consideration of children who are sensitive to loud noises, the zoo made adjustments to attractions with high-pitched sounds by lowering their volume for the event.
Some staff members have voluntarily participated in training programs conducted by the Wakayama prefectural government to gain a better understanding of various disabilities, and their skills in talking to and supporting others have improved year by year.
These efforts are welcomed by nursing care services providers from a developmental standpoint for disabled children.
"It is a precious opportunity for their growth, physically and mentally, as all their senses are stimulated," said Setsu Hamayuba, a 35-year-old employee at Medicare Rehabili Co., a nursing company in neighboring Osaka Prefecture.
"It's because they can watch, touch and smell animals with a sense of security as the place is exclusively for them," Hamayuba noted, adding the event also helps their parents discover "what their kids can do" through various activities such as feeding the animals.
Hamayuba's company engages in after-school daycare services for disabled school children in addition to general nursing services for communities in several parts of western Japan.
In July, 25 students led by Toshiya Matsuura, 60, a professor from the College of Integrated Human and Social Welfare Studies at Shukutoku University, participated as volunteers in an event at the Chiba Zoological Park, east of Tokyo.
The students, who are aspiring to become teachers at special needs schools, said they were able to utilize what they have learned to provide specialized support for children with severe disabilities.
"The presence of volunteers with expertise at other parks would make it easier (for disabled children) to visit here," Matsuura said.
He added that support is also needed for the parents and siblings of disabled children who can sometimes be apprehensive about taking them outside.
"Initiatives like Dreamnight, which the whole family can enjoy, are very important," he said.