Friday, July 21, 2017

Dreamnight at the Denver Zoo

Bookmark and Share
Although it was a few hours before sunset I could hear the night's insects as we waited to check in for our invitation that was extended to Noah to participate in Dreamlights at the Denver Zoo.   Two zookeepers carefully approached children with special needs, their siblings, and families to offer them the opportunity if they desired to feel and experience a texture of an animal.  Well trained they sensed Noah wasn't interested, nor could he handle the sudden approach of an animal he wasn't familiar with or even a person he lacked to trust holding it.   He displayed a half of gag, his own independent animal warning that says back away slowly before I vomit on you.  The Zookeepers sensing Noah's apprehension made no further advancements and just allowed Noah the space he needed to admire from a distance.  Luke sensing his brother's apprehension followed Noah's lead and declined to pet "things" he hadn't seen before.  The Zookeepers remained in complete understanding and unoffended by either of my children's lack of interest to engage in the petting opportunity.

We didn't have to wait long before our names were checked in on the list for our attendance.  I was asked to pick a piece of paper out of a bucket on Noah's behalf that would tell us where his private zoo encounter would be.  We drew the Gates Wildlife Conservation Education Center.   It's not a typical stopping point for us when we visit the zoo with Noah so I wasn't sure if it would hold his interest or not as it's a place in the zoo that doesn't hold a visual animals on display but serves are more of a learning/educational/teaching environment.   We checked in at our selected designated time.  It was right outside the entrance gates. 
The zoo felt eerily abandoned.  The roars from the lions just across the walk way were intense and powerful.  It was almost as if they could echo throughout the entire zoo.  A noise that is easily drowned out by thousands of people that frequent the zoo during public attendance hours, leaving you only with muffled sounds of children laughing, crying, and running about to see their favorite animals that make lions sound like a small roaring toy.  The roars so fierce I could literally feel them shake my heartbeat - not out of fear, but more so with with intense power and strength.  They caught Noah's attention too as he startled then looked around as if he expected one to be walking alongside him.    The night was so still and calm.  I wondered where everyone else was.  It was empty, quiet and peaceful.

We waited for a handful of minutes inside the conservatory for our private tour to begin.  Noah was instantly mesmerized by the origami-like birds that hung from the ceiling.  He refused to take his eyes off them.  His body language indicative of his hopes they'd take flight in movement.  But they just stood still and he grew frustrated that he could not grab the hanging paper birds' attention with his laughter or high tone arching.  As we walked into the tour room, he still tried to look over his shoulder in hopes that just one of those paper birds would move. 

We entered a back room that had a host of little critters that were used primarily for classroom travel purposes.  Some that weren't quite able to join the rest of their kind for public viewing, perhaps due to a medical condition or mild deformity.  Noah wasn't a fan of being in closed quarters with most of them.   He again was invited to touch or explore some outside of their caged habitats and wanted nothing to do with it close up.   His classic gag and I'll vomit on you reflex aimed, primed and exhibited several times.  I reassured the zookeepers that this was classic sensory overload signals.  She understood and kept her distance still of course offering Luke the opportunity.   Yet, Luke still headed Noah's warning like the older brother who could not talk had already spoken words of caution by the use of his gag reflex.   Luke remained by Noah's side, as if he were seeking Noah's protection and guidance.

 We were able to see some really beautiful and amazing animals that we had not otherwise been able to see before.  We got to see a tiny foxes, a month old owl that still hadn't gained it's feather's, a turtle with a shell deformity, a snake with a spine injury, ant eaters that were eating pellets to mimic ants,frogs, spiders, armadillos, a prairie dog who was blissfully unaware of us as it dinned on sunflower seeds,  exotic birds, that were  amazing birds that were so loud and obnoxious and that liked to fling their poop at you even from significant distance.  Things you wanted to cuddle with, but that clearly would never cuddle with you.  It was educational and fun, and Noah was relieved when he had some distance between the smell of the ant eaters cages since they smell much worse than an angry skunk.   Our tour was so detailed, and our zookeeper guide so understanding and sweet.  It truly was a very special experience.

After our private tour we were allowed to walk around the rest of the zoo for two hours.  Occasionally we'd pass another family, but it was rare.  You felt as if the zoo had been given just to you.  Noah soaked it in.  He rarely gets to see as much as he'd like in a wheelchair among busy crowds.  He is much too low to the ground and people don't realize that he cannot see around them or through them or can find an empty spot in a crowd to get a peak at an exhibit.  He goes without seeing as much as I know he'd wish he could.  He laughed and squealed with excitement - he was overjoyed at being able to see everything as he should - easily. 

Mountain goats frolicked, the hippo took a leisurely bath, monkeys lovingly grooming each other before bedtime, cheetah's playing in the cool of the day.  The animals looked just as relaxed as we felt.  As if this was their downtime, their time to enjoy the lack of being on display without countless eyes starring at them.  They engaged with Noah through the glass of exhibits like they had been waiting on him all this time to be able to get alone time with him.  He made delightful sounds back at them, and they'd paw or follow him with interest.   Luke likewise in awe of being able to take the zoo slower.  We're so often rushed through something because there are too many people or Noah can't take the time to see something so we move on to the next exhibit.  He was also enjoying the incredible luxury of the experience.

We rode the train while being the only ones on it.  Three times in a row.  We just sat and stared at the crocodile that kept moving her eyes back and forth as if it were overly curious and it sat still up against the glass as to offer Noah a full length perspective of its greatness.  The seals slept on rocks as we passed by, unaffected at all by our presence.   We'd pass another family here and there, but everything felt so peaceful, so still and calm.

For a moment it was as if my mind went silent.  But in a really much needed way.  I'm always thinking and praying and thinking and praying and trying to figure out how to help Noah or what to do next.  Imagine your mind constantly on overload without an off button.  It's hard because you're always trying to out think the current problem or challenge before you for the sake and well-being of your child.  I rarely if ever get an opportunity to remember what breathing and living feels like, because I'm just so busy trying to survive it all.
I watched all the giraffe's being inquisitive as their long necks reached down as if they wanted to kiss Noah on the forehead.  They looked at me as if they were seeking my permission.  They were full of grace and unspoken understanding for what they were witnessing.  Animals so full of comprehension for a situation that most humans ignore - whether that be intentional or not.   I appreciated their grace, their love, attention and affection for my family.   It's quite amazing as when you have a child that is non-verbal you find lots of other ways to communicate.  Throughout the years I've grown especially fond of reading eyes and body language.  And the eyes of all living creatures speak volumes.
It's so rare when we can peacefully enjoy something like this as a family.  This experience was tremendously helpful for Noah to fully enjoy himself without being sensory challenges being decreased for him.  It was tailored beautifully to the needs of families like ours.  I'm not sure if we'll have a chance to ever be invited again but I pray that we are.  We really needed this.  In fact, I we need it so much more.  Dreamnights is an event that only happens once a year every June.  It's such a magical experience that I wish they'd do it even once a month all year long - something I'd even find a way to pay for if I had to.  It was really that special.  The zoo doesn't even feel the same now after we've done Dreamnights... we keep aching for that deep lion roar and the heartfelt concern from the giraffes...


Noah's Miracle by Stacy Warden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.