“San Diego Zoo Kids” Brings Joy to Sick and Ill Children

| December 31, 2013 | 0 Comments

by Dove Kirby

Not every press release has a pangolin as a presenter. This month, I was fortunate enough to attend an extremely unique event at Rady Children’s hospital, at which rare animals and some very special patients were in attendance. It was the official launch of a pioneering partnership between the two prominent San Diego organizations that brings animals and hospitalized kids together in a brand new way.

Most of us have taken our own kids to the beloved San Diego Zoo, and millions more visit each year. But hundreds of children in San Diego can’t visit the zoo due to hospitalization. Now, thanks to this groundbreaking initiative, the Zoo can come right into their hospital rooms.

“San Diego Zoo Kids” is a designated television channel that is now available in every patient’s room, as well as all waiting areas. The 24-hour channel will feature live video feed from the zoo’s many online cameras, including the famous “Panda-cam,” as well as programming about unique and endangered species, making innovative use of the thousands of hours of footage in the Zoo’s archives. “What you’re going to see,” said Donald B Kearns, MD, acting president of Rady Children’s, “is the variety of animals we have at the San Diego Zoo. What it’s going to provide is incredibly entertaining, fun and educational content for kids.”

“As you can imagine,” Dr Kearns continues, “as a child here at Rady Children’s Hospital, it’s an uncomfortable situation. They’re not feeling well, they’re in an unusual environment, and I would bet that most kids would prefer to be at the Zoo. So we thought, what’s the next best thing? Why don’t we bring the Zoo to the children? In addition to it being entertaining, we hope that it’s going to be soothing, and will be calming, and it will help kids heal.”

Doug Myers, president and CEO of San Diego Zoo Global, speaks of “the magic that we know happens between people and wildlife.” He says that people from around the world have written emails saying they’ve watched the panda cam, the elephant cam, the great ape cam. “They tell us about their experiences and how they’ve changed their lives. But some of the most inspirational stories that we’ve heard are from doctors and nurses, who say that the patients who watch these animal videos and these live cams have a positive attitude, they seem to take less pain meds– they just get better faster.”

Without one very generous donor, “San Diego Zoo Kids” would still just be a great idea. Denny Sanford is a philanthropist from South Dakota who has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars toward organizations that improve the lives of children, as well as several medical research facilities, primarily in his home state. However, Sanford tells me that he “found himself with a vacation home here” in San Diego, where he spends a good deal of time, and in recent years has given generously to fund UCSD’s Stem Cell Research Facility and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Facility in La Jolla.

Sanford says that the collaboration between the Zoo and Rady Children’s is “the perfect partnership,” commenting that we have the greatest zoo in the world and one of the greatest children’s hospitals in the world, just a few miles from one another. “This is the right thing to do, and Rady is the right place to start.”

Rick Schwartz is the National spokesperson for San Diego Zoo Global, as well as the host of one of the shows airing on “San Diego Zoo Kids.” He brought some exotic friends to help kick off the program. Holding the rare pangolin, Schwartz talks for a moment about Zoo Express, an existing program that brings animals into Rady Children’s as well as other hospitals in the San Diego area.

The feedback from hospital staff and parents, Schwartz says, is incredibly meaningful. With tears in his eyes, he relates that when he learns that a child has smiled for the first time in two weeks, and for a moment was able to forget about what was going on, “It means a lot. It’s so powerful to see that happen.” Schwartz says that seeing the connection between the kids and the animals is probably the best part of his job. The unfortunate thing about Zoo Express, however, is that it’s only once a month. “Now with ‘San Diego Zoo Kids,’ it can happen any time that child wants to turn the TV on and escape for a little bit.” Schwartz agrees that the therapeutic effect of animals on sick people is undeniable.

Two more children’s hospitals, in Los Angeles and South Dakota, are lined up to begin broadcasting “San Diego Zoo Kids” channel, with several other cities expressing interest.

“It is our hope and our dream,” says Myers in closing, “to roll this across the country to every children’s hospital so that they can be part of what we’re dreaming today. Today, we start something great for kids of all ages.”

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Category: Animals, Local News

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