I have been involved with both Woodland Park Zoo and Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington since 1998. It’s a joy to share the zoo with Make-A-Wish kids who are awaiting their wish experiences. A recent experience with a young girl named Nicole brought together the things I love most about both organizations.
Nicole and her mother first came to visit in March. Her Make-A-Wish volunteers Audrey and Stephanie said she had a special request to see the elephants. Nicole was about to have major surgery for her bone cancer and this was going to be a fun day before she’d be laid up for several months.
Nicole, Chai and zookeepers, March 2012. Photo courtesy of Audrey Seale.
A typical experience involves the keepers sharing their vast knowledge of the animals, talking about their daily routines, and answering questions. Sometimes these visits are pretty quick, lasting about 10 minutes. But sometimes, the guests are so engaged, the visit can be much longer. Nicole’s visit lasted two hours.
The keepers could clearly see that Nicole was enthralled with meeting Chai, one of our female Asian elephants. Nicole’s eyes lit up and while she wasn’t very vocal with lots of questions, an apparent bond had formed.
Nicole bravely underwent rounds of surgery and treatments. Audrey told us that Nicole carried a photo of her and Chai throughout all her treatments and couldn’t wait to share her elephants with her family in the summer.
When the keepers learned that Nicole was still having a tough time in June, they sent hugs from Chai.
Chai and her zookeepers pose with a message for Nicole. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.
Then this past December, we were given the opportunity to share the zoo again with Nicole and her entire family. Just days before Nicole’s 12th birthday, we gave her an unforgettable zoo experience. Not only did she get to visit Chai again, but Chai made a painting just for Nicole.
Chai makes a painting for Nicole in the Elephant Barn with the help of her keeper. Photo courtesy of Audrey Seale.
She also got a surprise tour of our animal hospital with the zoo’s Director of Animal Health, Dr. Darin Collins. Nicole wants to be a veterinarian and Dr. Darin shared stories about the zoo’s gorilla baby getting surgery from doctors at Children's Hospital in 2008, gave a tour of the treatment rooms, showed her radiographs that compared femurs of different animals, and visited a newly arrived toucan currently in standard quarantine at the zoo’s Animal Health Complex.
Nicole visits a new toucan behind the scenes at the zoo’s Animal Health Complex. December 2012. Photo by Darin Collins/Woodland Park Zoo.
Audrey said that Dr. Darin showed Nicole “how to be with what has happened to her” when he related Nicole’s cancer to the animals he treats and the health challenges they can face.
To cap off the evening, the whole family, plus aunts, uncles and cousins, enjoyed WildLights presented by KeyBank, and though it rained, everyone was smiling.
But it doesn’t end there. The next day, Nicole left for her wish to go to her favorite Florida theme parks, including SeaWorld. Dr. Darin "made-a-wish" himself and requested a behind-the-scenes tour of the SeaWorld Animal Hospital from his colleagues as a birthday present for Nicole. Dr. Darin said, “I told Nicole that she inspired me. I told her to let me know what inspired her during her Orlando experience.” Since returning, Nicole has told Dr. Darin about the long-term care needed for a pilot whale with scoliosis she learned about, and how inspiring she finds the work of veterinarians who commit to helping animals through such challenges.
Nicole and Dr. Darin Collins at Woodland Park Zoo. December 2012. Photo courtesy of Anthony St. Martin.
Woodland Park Zoo plays multiple roles for people in our community. For many, the zoo is a place to share the wonder of wild animals with their families. For others, the zoo is a place to learn about empathy for animals and people. This in turn inspires our staff to continue to do meaningful work each day so that we can provide a place of learning, healing and new conservation stewards for generations to come.