Animal Rx at Children's Hospital

Mike Clark, LA Zoo condor keeper and Dolly1.JPG
Dolly and Mike Clark

On Valentine's Day, Dolly was surrounded by more admirers than she could handle. The California condor who lives at the L.A. Zoo and gets more pampering than a spa-ful of Housewives of Beverly Hills preened on her padded perch in an outdoor patio at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

She's one of the stars of the hospital's newly launched San Diego Zoo Kids TV channel. A kind of closed-circuit "Animal Planet" for sick kids, the bedside videos about exotic animals are meant not only to educate and entertain, but to help the captive medical population heal faster.

The program is an initiative of San Diego Zoo Global, an international conservation organization affiliated with the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park devoted to the study, breeding and reintroduction to the wild of animals, especially those on the brink of extinction.

Friday's media event trotted out the standard People In Suits Who Make This Program Possible, but the real attraction was Dolly, described by Mike Clark, her keeper at the L.A. Zoo, as a "diva."

Hatched in a cave in the condor sanctuary at Pinnacles National Park, she was discovered at 4 months old to have a broken wing. She was taken to the L.A. Zoo for surgery, and TLC in perpetuity. The bird who has never flown, and never will, serves as a fine ambassador for her landlords.

Bonner the Newfoundland at CHLA2.JPG
Big boy Bonner

Children's Hospital has long had a therapy dog program, represented at the TV channel launch by Bonner, a Newfoundland the size of News Brunswick, but more exotic stock haven't appeared at the hospital for years, since the L.A. Zoo's educational collection dwindled into only reptiles, which aren't considered suitable playdates for the children. With Dolly's debut, however, a zoo spokeswoman said that the institution is beefing up its bird and mammal diplomatic corps, and is hopeful of reviving its kid-friendly relationship with the hospital.

Among the patients who managed to squeeze through the media-executive throng to say, "Hello, Dolly," was 11-year-old Cody Esphorst, who misses his dog, cat and fish, but is going home today after five weeks, two bouts of cancer and the removal of his colon. You look at this kid looking at this bird and wonder what you did to deserve such good luck.

Clark, Dolly and Cody.JPG
Clark, Dolly and Cody Esphorst

Dolly, like all birds and divas, has no social graces, and proved it. A curious 7-year-old kidney patient was the only person with enough guts to voice what we all wondered: "What's dripping down her leg?"

"That's pee," said Rick Schwartz, spokesman for San Diego Zoo Global, segueing smartly into an explanation of how animals adapt to whatever they need to in order to survive, and if peeing down your leg helps you remain alert for more important distractions, well, that's what you do.

And even though 3-year-old Dolly didn't get a chance to be distracted, she's still condor to the core. "Condors are all about comfort," Clark said. "They get pushed around in the wild," so the last thing they're comfortable with is humans pushing them around. That's why he made sure her perch was not only padded, but high enough so that her eye level was superior to that of her audience. It makes her feel safer, which makes her seem regal, haughty. You know, like a diva.

Soon, Bianca Cortez will be watching the Dolly drama on the monitor at her bed. Everything a diva is, Cortez is not. The 16-year-old has been hospitalized for a month, and isn't sure when she can go home. She's had a liver transplant, a brain tumor and is more cheerful than St. Nick. Kind and generous enough to let a bunch of people with cameras and notebooks invade her privacy, she demonstrates San Diego Zoo Kids to Denny Sanford, the philanthropist who makes it all happen.

It's great he could help to bring a zebra to the bedside of a sick kid. It won't cure what ails her, but it might help her tolerate it.

CHLA patient Bianca Cortez watches SD Zoo Kids channel4.JPG
Bianca Cortez and San Diego Zoo Kids TV

Photos: Ellen Alperstein

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