LOS ANGELES - The sight of an exotic animal can be a welcome distraction, even a temporary antidote, for a sick child. But you can't simply slap a leash and surgical mask on a rhino and march it through the front door of a hospital for a visit.
That's why more than 14 accredited zoos and aquariums across the country have teamed up with local pediatric hospitals to beam in footage of sea otters getting their teeth brushed, baby tiger cubs getting belly rubs and pandas munching on bamboo, said Jennifer Fields of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in Baltimore.
For kids with cancer, kidney problems or just a broken leg, temporarily forgetting why they are stuck in a hospital can be a step toward recovery. Videos show animals like sharks, meerkats and gorillas eating, romping or receiving care while educators provide fun facts for kids and maps show the animal's natural environment. The footage supplements popular show-and-tell sessions where trainers introduce hospitalized kids to smaller — and less ferocious — animals like snakes, anteaters, jellyfish and crabs. But not all children can attend those visits because of germs, surgery or rehab.
Zoos and aquariums from California to New Jersey have established video projects to give every kid a chance to see out-of-the-ordinary wildlife. One of the largest is the month-old San Diego Zoo Kids, which is beamed to every room, waiting area and clinic at Rady Children's Hospital San Diego.
Tino Pepe, 4, who sat surrounded by stuffed animals on his hospital bed, is a huge fan. He is well-versed in the San Diego Zoo's exhibits, being a frequent visitor. When Tino and his mom go to the hospital for blood work, they'll often stop at the zoo afterward as a reward.
Tino was born without kidney function and spent the first half of his life on a dialysis machine. Two years ago, his mom, Yvette, gave him one of her kidneys. This January trip to the hospital was to clear up an infection.
"He will always have stuff to deal with. It's just part of his life, our lives," said his dad, John Pepe.
Tino relates to a part of a video featuring a baby orangutan that had open heart surgery. Staffers are following the small ape through its recovery.
Tino, whose favorite animals right now are the rhino and zebra, has learned heaps of facts about animals from his trips to the zoo and bedtime stories with Mom and Dad.
"He'll remember facts like which continent they live on and what they eat," John Pepe said. "He knows the difference between an herbivore and a carnivore."
San Diego Zoo Kids' four-hour loop running now at Rady Children's Hospital features footage of the zoo's panda exhibit and lots of information from Rick Schwartz, the zoo's national ambassador and show host.
"It is a perfect match, an opportunity for us to bring the zoo to children who can't come to the zoo because they are in the hospital," he said.
Schwartz is working on new content, including incorporating archive footage. For years, the zoo has broadcast live Internet streams from cameras trained on the zoo's panda, elephant, polar bear, ape, condor and koala bear exhibits.
It will take some work to get that footage ready for prime time. "A koala sleeps 20 hours a day," Schwartz said. "That would be pretty boring to watch."
The TV network will be offered to every children's hospital in the country, Dr. Donald B. Kearns, acting president of Rady's, said during a kickoff news conference in December. The hospital already has two commitments: Children's Hospital Los Angeles and Sanford Children's Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Businessman and philanthropist Denny Sanford donated the money to launch the network.
Another program in California has been underway for a year. The Aquarium of the Pacific and Miller Children's Hospital in Long Beach have teamed up, and aquarium education director Dave Bader said there are two big benefits. Distraction, interaction and fun comes in first, but the second is selfish, he said.
"We get to feel good by providing something for the patients," Bader said. "We benefit from this interaction, too."
The aquarium show airs in each hospital room every other Tuesday afternoon.
Children can watch as veterinarians at Molina Animal Health Center weigh animals or give them vitamins or antibiotics, Bader said.
He says the questions he gets at show-and-tells prove the animals are helping the kids forget their sicknesses for a bit.
After seeing that sea otters get their teeth brushed at the aquarium, one child asked Bader about the penguins. No teeth, no problem, he said.
Schwartz also sees quizzical kids momentarily engrossed in the animal world. He was showing a boa constrictor to a group of young patients when a little girl asked, "Do snakes yawn?"
"To this day, hands down, no question about it, that was the best question I ever got, and the only time I ever got it," he said.
And, yes, snakes do yawn.