Health care providers utilizing social prescriptions for Toronto Zoo trips

The Green Line took a trip to the Toronto Zoo in Morningside Heights to learn how a new service is enabling medical professionals to prescribe a visit to the zoo for mental health care.

By Julia Lawrence, Amanda Seraphina, and Anita Li of The Green Line

Healthcare providers can now prescribe a trip to the Toronto Zoo as part of a new service that encourages locals to get out and enjoy nature to improve their mental health.

So, the next time you visit the zoo in Morningside Heights might be because your doctor prescribed it.

Local social worker Vikas Keshri was one of the first providers to sign up for PaRx at, so he could offer it to his patients.

“We used to ask people to go out for a walk. But now, imagine a person going out for a walk in the neighbourhood, which is very familiar and there’s no awe element there,” Keshri explained. “And now someone walking through Toronto Zoo, they have a lot of things that will interest them.”

“It’s an investment in the wellness of the people in the community. Part of mental health — the intervention — is being mindful in the present. It helps with anxiety, depression, PTSD, stress, burnout.”

Toronto Zoo CEO Dolf Dejong says PaRx also opens the zoo’s gates to more Torontonians who may have not been able to access it before. Patients who sign up receive a 50 per cent discount on the price of admission to the zoo.

“This is just another tool doctors can use. And we know mental health is a unique prescription for everyone. And if this can be something that helps [Torontonians] improve by getting outside, by connecting with nature — whether it’s the vitamin D from the sun, whether it’s the physical benefit of walking on our 10 kilometres of trails, whether it’s that escape from the hustle and bustle of the city,” he explained.

Toronto Zoo CEO Dolf Dejong in front of the surgical suite at the Toronto Zoo. (Amanda Seraphina/The Green Line)

So far, the zoo has seen around half a dozen visitors come in with their prescriptions from PaRx. Dejong says the number of patients will continue to grow, as the number of doctors who become aware of the service also increases.

Social prescriptions, which provide community-based support for mental health, are rising in popularity.

Kate Mulligan, a doctor who works at the Canadian Institute for Social Prescribing as a senior director and strategic advisor, said the zoo prescription is a good start but could be improved with a “community connector.”

“We know that many healthcare providers are under tremendous strain as it is right now in our health system. They need to know what to do next, so they need support. So typically, in the ideal model of social prescribing, they can refer somebody to a community connector or a link worker — a person whose job it is to really listen and take time and connect the person to something that’s meaningful to them in their lives, and help them actually take action to follow through,” said Mulligan.

“I think that’s one of the reasons we don’t see it as much yet is that we need more of those link worker roles and more awareness for healthcare people that they can take advantage of those roles and use those people in their work. So, you know, a zoo prescription program is nice, but it doesn’t provide that level of support. It sort of expects that people will be able to follow through on their own.”

The Green Line asked visitors at the zoo whether they’d use the service for therapeutic reasons. Jennifer Minelli said enthusiastically that she’d use PaRx.

Jennifer Minelli and her son on a visit at the Toronto Zoo. (Amanda Seraphina/The Green Line)

“Being out here in nature, seeing all the animals, you’re up near Rouge Valley — there’s just so much sunshine and [that] just makes you feel good,” Minelli said. “So the fact that you can do it with doctors’ endorsement and it’s more accessible to people because it’s cheaper is fantastic. All for it.”

Another visitor who was with his family, Neil Hendry, was similarly supportive of the service.

“Well, the idea is to make people’s lives as comfortable and fulfilling as humanely possible. And this doesn’t hurt anybody,” he said. “Letting a few people into the zoo at a reduced price, giving them comfort, is terrific. It’s very simple, very straightforward. Good plan.”

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