Four-year-old Khrystalann Pardue seemed a bit wary of the box turtle.
She timidly stuck out her finger and touched the shell as the turtle wildly wiggled its body. She shrieked, partly out of fright and partly from pure delight, and pulled back her hand.
Khrystalann, a patient at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital, was one of about 125 people with disabilities who were guests last night at the National Aquarium's "Aquarium Cares" event.
It is a nighttime invitation-only event that the aquarium is resurrecting after a two-year hiatus. It allows physically and emotionally challenged children and adults to tour Baltimore's premiere tourist attraction without the stress from regular crowds.
Last night's guests also came from the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Springfield Hospital Center, the Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens and the Francis X. Gallagher Center. About 60 volunteers and staff members, who volunteered their time, gave individual attention to the visitors.
One change from the regular tour was that the dolphins did not perform last night.
"That would be a bit too much stimulation for some of the groups to handle," said Helen Jones, the aquarium's manager of staff training and a former special education teacher.
But the guests were able to get up close to the dolphin tanks to watch them swim.
Ms. Jones said the number of guests was kept low so that people in wheelchairs or others who have difficulty maneuvering in crowds would have easy access to the exhibits.
With crowds, "it would be difficult for them to make their way down to the [dolphin] tank to get individual attention," she said.
The outing is great therapy for patients cooped up in hospitals all day, said Marilyn Richardson, child life coordinator at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital.
"This fish is awesome!" shrieked an excited Liz Haverlandt, 15, as she wheeled toward part of her group that was lagging behind.
She had an encounter with an enormous grouper, a very ugly sand-colored fish.
"It looked like a rock because it blended in with the background. I saw him because his gills were moving!" Liz said.
Liz, of West Hartford, Conn., is staying at Mt. Washington for three months. For her, the outing was a pleasant break from the hours of painful therapy she goes through each day to lengthen her legs.
The grouper hardly impressed Stephen Fisher, 5, of Lutherville, who receives rehabilitative treatment at Mt. Washington. He went to see the sharks.
And shaking his finger with an impish smile, he had a warning for a pesky reporter: "The shark is going to get you!"