Sea turtles have always been her favorite animal.
Their life in the ocean, beauty and even their awkwardness put them at the top of the animal kingdom for high school senior Reannah Hollaway.
So when I overheard a conversation at Texas Children’s Hospital about this young lady battling cystic fibrosis wanting to meet a sea turtle, I went into action.
Me and my wife Lisa operate the Kingdom Zoo Wildlife Center. Our cornerstone program is called Wild Wishes and it grants exotic animal encounters to children with critical illness or loss of parent or sibling. In the past, Moody Gardens in Galveston, TX had granted penguin encounters to children in the program.
I knew the facility had a Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle named “Chloe” so we contacted them to see what was possible.
On April 29, Reannah got to meet this special turtle in a behind the scenes setting, almost getting to hand it feed via a special device. Chloe was a tad too shy for that but swam up and gave Reannah a close look that put a Texas-sized smile on her face.
She also got to do an encounter with giant river otters which included feeding the endangered mustelids rainbow trout and posing for a kiss photo. On top of that she got to go to go behind the scenes at the Caribbean aquarium and feed the fish.
The smiles got even bigger as Reannah realized she was not only feeding tarpon, Atlantic spadefish and jack crevalle but also sharks.
“This is awesome!,” she said.
I can’t thank Moody Gardens enough for rolling out the red carpet for a very sweet and caring young girl. Everyone from the PR department to the animal care crew were gracious and gave not only their time but love. I’ll never forget that.
And I will never forget Reannah’s desire to meet sea turtles.
I have been involved with endangered wildlife my entire professional life at many levels but not until we met this young lady did I put the dots together how Wild Wishes would connect to conservation.
Each young person coming through the program will have an opportunity to choose from a list of endangered species they would like to help. We have vetted numerous organizations who work with them and they will make a small donation in the child’s name to that cause.
A few months ago I was speaking with legendary marine artist and conservationist Dr. Guy Harvey and he said that if everyone would just do a little, then a lot would be accomplished. With that said, I find it amazing that Reannah wanted to help the ocean and we will be making a small donation in her name to the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation.
Who better to help wildlife facing immense challenges than children facing challenges themselves?
I can’t tell you how impactful learning of Reannah’s desire to meet a sea turtle was and then meeting her and seeing how much she really does care about animals and the ocean. Moving forward many endangered animals will be helped because this young lady wanted to get close to sea turtles. She inspired us.
Not only will children in the program on top of their wish encounter get a donation to an endangered species cause in their name but they will also have an opportunity to be part of a special mentoring program called World Wildlife Champions.
The young people who come through Wild Wishes will have a chance to become our conservation ambassadors.
That means they will have the chance to get hands-on training with animal ambassadors from Kingdom Zoo Wildlife Center, learn wildlife photography, go through an endangered species information course and appear at events with animals to help raise awareness to endangered species conservation.
As far as we know this has never been done.
World Wildlife Champion Moment (Aug. 2018 Update)
After her wish, Reannah informed me that her friend Lauren also loved sea turtles and had a dream of releasing one that had been rehabilitated.
As I began working on that project a series of events unfolded that I can only describe as incredible.
The Amos Research Keep (ARK) at Port Aransas offered an opportunity for the girls to tour their facility and release two green sea turtles back into the Gulf. So, on Aug. 10 we paid them a visit.
After learning much about the ARK’s inspiring work and seeing many sea turtles, the highlight of the day had arrived. It was time for the turtle release.
As I watched the girls put on their latex gloves and move the turtles out toward the water, I saw worries melt away. I saw that hint of anxiety that I have learned to pick up working with children facing loss and serious illnesses disappear. I saw two young girls being young girls and living that rare, surreal dream come true moment.
When Lauren and Reannah lowered the turtles into the surf and watched them quickly swim away, a tangible feeling of freedom filled the air. It’s the kind of freedom ARK provides many sea turtles and injured shore birds but there was something else.
This event inspired two young ladies facing challenges in life to see that great things can happen-even the very biggest dreams coming true.
Lauren and Reannah will never forget the day they stepped into the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico and set free their favorite animals. And neither will I.
Those two young ladies will for the rest of their lives wonder where those turtles ended up and how their lives turned out. Those are the kind of thoughts that not only bring smiles but inspiration.
There are no guarantees but the turtles got a fighting chance and they got it because people cared.
Oh and Reannah started college and has changed her major to work on behalf of wildlife conservation.
Her conservation calling has been awakened and so has ours.
Chester Moore, Jr.