Creepy-crawlies Test Children's Courage at Haifa Zoo

The room next door was pitch-black, and every few seconds bloodcurdling shrieks escaped from it. A dimly illuminated human skeleton outside the door cast a terrifying shadow over glass boxes and challenge cards. What were the challenges? Just stick your hand into one of the boxes scattered around the room. Sounds simple? Well, perhaps we should mention that the boxes contained rats, bats, spiders, cockroaches, snakes and the like. Welcome to Fear Factor: It looks like the foreign reality program but it's right here at the Haifa Educational Zoo.

Hundred of schoolchildren and parents have been to the room since it opened several weeks ago. "It's intended for all ages," zoo's manager Etty Ararat says.

"As a learning-educational zoo we discovered many unexplained fears of animals" among visitors to the zoo, she explained, adding that these fears were based on stereotypes, or on some kind of personal experience.

"I saw that people wanted to deal with fears, so we built this room where we are getting people to confront their primal fears. While playing they overcome the fear. The desire to win a prize is stronger than the fear," Ararat said.

The courageous people who want to cope with their fears enter the dark room with the glass tanks, which are filled with various reptiles, rodents and amphibians, such as frogs. "The people are supposed to put their hands in the tanks and draw a challenge card that could earn them a prize, and they must do so without knowing what's in the box," Ararat said.

While groping around for the card, their hands brush up against the creatures. "They might be repelled, and pull out their hand, but they must put it back in to continue the search," Ararat explains. "This time they'll have to touch the animal. It might be a white rat, which in contrast to what many people believe is pleasant to the touch. Or it could be a writhing snake - and at first touch they're not much different from the rubber ones sold in stores."

Boaz Idelovici, who is in charge of the room and the animals, recalled the time a woman with a baby in a stroller came in. "At some point the snake began crawling on the stroller. She was screaming in terror," Idelovici related. "After the staff calmed her down she stayed in the room for the rest of the activity. She overcame her fear."

According to Varda Sivan, a clinical psychologist at Child and Youth Mental Health Services at Haifa's Rambam Medical Center, the zoo's Fear Factor room is based on the principles of behavioral psychology: stimulus and response. "If the exposure to animals is controlled and accompanied by systematic relaxation work, in a gradual, repetitive manner, then this is behavioral therapy that blocks the connection between the stimulus that causes fear and the emotion of fear," Sivan explained.