Young leukemia patient gets her wish: A visit to the NC Zoo

mquillin@newsobserver.comJuly 8, 2014 

— From her back-stage vantage point 10 feet from the animals, Joelle Loomis watched carefully Tuesday as Apollo, a baby gorilla at the N.C. Zoo, used his mother as a jungle gym.

Apollo climbed Olympia’s arm, shimmied up her shoulder and, from the top of Olympia’s head, launched himself onto a fence.

Joelle seemed charmed by this childlike behavior, maybe because she hasn’t always been able to act like the kid she is herself during the past few months.

Last fall, after what Joelle’s mother thought was a bout of the flu coming on, the 11-year-old was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Normally very active – she had hoped to run on her school’s track team – Joelle spent a month in intensive treatment that sent her disease into remission, and she’ll continue to get regular chemo until early 2016.

It often makes her feel bad.

But she was feeling great Tuesday, the first of two days she would spend at the North Carolina Zoological Park, a trip sponsored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which fulfills the hopes of children with life-threatening illnesses.

Make-A-Wish offered to send Joelle and her family from their home in Whitesboro, N.Y., about an hour east of Syracuse, to any of a half-dozen zoos around the country. She chose the one in Asheboro, where she could get a taste of the life she’d like to live, as a zookeeper.

“I knew this zoo was bigger,” she said, “and that it had more animals than the others. And I’ve always wanted to come to North Carolina.”

Joelle arrived at the zoo Tuesday morning with her twin sister, Jocelyn; her older sister, Alexandria, and her parents, Bill and Dusty Loomis, for a full day of behind-the-scenes activities.

Her critter-filled itinerary began with an 8 a.m. meeting with a giraffe.

“I got to feed it,” she said. She held out long stalks of tender green leaves, which the giraffe wrapped its tongue around and snatched out of her hands.

“It almost pulled me off the ground,” she said. “It sort of made me feel like a midget.”

Next stop was the aviary, then on to the baboons, where she and her siblings tossed fruit for the animals to eat. Noticing the mom was taking the treats, tearing them into small bits and offering them to her baby, Joelle and her sisters began lobbing snacks directly to the mother.

Joelle and her family were accompanied throughout the park by Karen Jarvis, an animal-records specialist who has worked at the park for more than 20 years. When she’s not at the zoo, Jarvis is a volunteer “wishmaker” for a local chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Using her connections to both organizations, Jarvis has helped arrange many trips like Joelle’s. Most of them were for North Carolina-based children whose first choice was Mickey Mouse, but who weren’t well enough to travel that far.

“We’re a pretty good backup to Disney World,” said Jarvis, who was given a Governor’s Award for Excellence in 2012 for her work with the charity and the zoo.

At each stop around the park, Joelle met zookeepers and researchers who gave her the inside scoop. She fed an elephant. She petted a rhino named Stan and gave him a snack. She wore a Zoo Staff cap and an official N.C. Zoo ID badge.

Keeper Robin Rousseau took Joelle and her family through a bamboo forest around to the side of the gorilla exhibit, where they could watch as another keeper, Willie Campbell, called the animals over to a gate for “training” exercises. Using a clicker and hand gestures, Campbell asked Olympia and her baby to perform different tasks such as presenting a hand or an ear for inspection. Each time they performed the task, they got a slice of fresh kiwi.

That’s how keepers are able to examine the animals without causing them undue stress, Rousseau told Joelle, and without exposing the keepers to injury.

“These gorillas are really gentle,” Rousseau told Joelle. “But they’re really strong, and they could hurt you without even meaning to.”

After watching them for a while, Joelle thought of another wish, not as easily granted as a trip to the zoo.

“I want a baby gorilla,” she told her mom with a grin.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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