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Not every day you see a sloth at Tacoma’s Mary Bridge, but Friday wasn’t a regular day

Siesta the sloth visited Tacoma’s Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital on Friday

Siesta, a 17-year-old sloth from Point Defiance Zoo, visited children at Tacoma's Mary Bridge Children's Hospital on Friday morning. Siesta was there to celebrate the launch of the San Diego Zoo Kids channel at the hospital.
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Siesta, a 17-year-old sloth from Point Defiance Zoo, visited children at Tacoma's Mary Bridge Children's Hospital on Friday morning. Siesta was there to celebrate the launch of the San Diego Zoo Kids channel at the hospital.

Siesta the sloth dangled from a makeshift tree in Tacoma’s Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital on Friday morning.

Dozens of children crowded around, asking Siesta’s keeper questions and posing for photos next to the sleepy animal.

Siesta, a 17-year-old, middle-aged sloth, lives at Point Defiance Zoo. Siesta works as an “ambassador animal,” attending events around the area for educational purposes.

“The sloth is a part of a group of animals that go out on different outreach functions, so they’re used to this type of experience,” Alan Varsik, the zoo’s director, said. “They have a special air-conditioned, climate-controlled van that all our animals travel in.”

Siesta came to Mary Bridge on Friday for an extra special reason: to help celebrate the hospital’s launch of the San Diego Zoo Kids channel.

The channel, produced primarily for children at hospitals, includes short, entertaining and educational segments. They’re meant to help kids at the hospital relax, take their mind off upcoming procedures and learn some cool animal facts at the same time.

Debra Erickson, a spokesperson for the channel, told a story about how she’d seen the channel positively impact kids at the hospital. Her colleague’s children were crying, she said, because their mother had to be raced into emergency surgery.

“He turns on the kids channel, all of a sudden, within a minute, he’s like, ‘Oh, look at that panda,’ and they start talking about the animals. They start laughing,” Erickson said.

Watching the channel also can help kids feel better about their own illnesses, Anna Ahrens, a spokesperson for Mary Bridge, said.

“They can learn that animals get sick too and what medicines they take,” Ahrens said.

The channel will play in all areas of the hospital where children are served, Jeff Poltawsky, the hospital’s president, said. Even adult patients in Tacoma General can watch it.

The channel has been implemented in 275 hospitals in 43 states and 10 different countries, Erickson said. Mary Bridge is the first children’s hospital in Washington to receive the program.

Philanthropist T. Denny Sanford paid for the program’s implementation. It costs around $7,000 to bring the channel to each new location.

As part of the process of bringing it to Tacoma, San Diego Zoo Kids featured Mary Bridge patients in four special segments filmed at the Point Defiance Zoo and the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park.

In one segment, two children from Mary Bridge don wetsuits and dive into a shark tank. Surrounded by a cage, they paddle eye to eye next to a group of swimming sharks, including blacktip sharks, sand tiger sharks and nurse sharks.

In other segments, Mary Bridge children talk about animals.

Rowdi Rollman, 8, was featured in one of the segments. She said she loves elephants and orangutans because “they’re big.”

For other segments, the channel’s crew rode along while keepers fed animals in a 430-acre roaming area. One segment featured the octopus at Point Defiance’s aquarium.

“They really tried to see what was local to the Pacific Northwest,” Ahrens said.

The four segments featuring Tacoma will be added to the San Diego Zoo Kids network and be shown across the country and the world.

Children at Mary Bridge who couldn’t visit with Siesta this time don’t have to worry. The hospital says it’s planning to make zoo animal visits a semi-regular event.

“We’re already arranging our next visit. I believe it’s going to be early December,” Ahrens said.

Poltawsky said connecting children with animals by bringing them into the hospital and offering the channel is important.

The channel will stay at the hospital indefinitely, he said, and the hospital plans to pursue more funding for future zoo animal visits.

“I think it’s so important,” he said. “It’s as important as art therapy, music therapy. It’s all about getting kids back to being kids again.”

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