Health & Medicine

Here’s what a python, alligator and hungry porcupine were doing at Sutter children’s center

Watch an alligator, penguins and other animals visit kids at local hospital

Pediatric patients at the Sutter children’s center were visited by “animal ambassadors” from SeaWorld San Diego on Thursday, May 16, 2019.
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Pediatric patients at the Sutter children’s center were visited by “animal ambassadors” from SeaWorld San Diego on Thursday, May 16, 2019.

Who needs a dog when you can pet a 12-foot Burmese python?

About 50 young patients at the Sutter Medical Center children’s center in Sacramento got an up-close look at the snake, an adult alligator, a porcupine, a penguin and other critters Thursday morning, when “animal ambassadors” from SeaWorld San Diego came for a visit.

The animals were calm and gentle while children as young as 5 years old, many of them attached to IVs, petted them and chatted with their trainers.

The event was a part of hospital’s Child Life Program, which the Sutter Health website describes as “child-appropriate entertainment and special events” and “fun distractions that can take your child’s mind off of anxiety, sadness or discomfort.”

Those distractions seemed to be working, as nearly all of the children and teens smiled as soon as they watched Morocco the porcupine peel the skin off an apple with his teeth.

The two most popular creatures when the children first started filing into the playroom at the center were Ms. Piggy, a 90-pound snake who slithered and bobbed her head in her trainer’s hands, and Morocco, aka “Mo,” who made a mess of fruit and corn cobs in the middle of the floor.

Then, as Ms. Piggy was taken back to her enclosure to rest, out came the gator to steal the show.

Reptile trainer Gabe Kerschner walked out with Ms. Piggy and returned with Izod, a North American alligator with impressive teeth who took up most of a metal table in the corner of the room. After some initial fright, the kids slowly approached one at a time to pet Izod’s scaly back.

SeaWorld’s ambassadors have come to Sacramento once a year for the past 15 years, and 2019 marks their second straight year visiting children at Sutter Medical Center, SeaWorld San Diego spokesman David Koontz said. The animals also visit the state Capitol.

“Today we’re here at Sutter children’s hospital to give the patients here that opportunity to see the animals firsthand,” Koontz said. “To get a connection with them and really help them think about something other than the treatments that they’re going through.”

Toddlers, children and teens at the Anderson Lucchetti Women’s & Children’s Center at Sutter undergoing treatment for cancer and a variety of other conditions also received plenty of education courtesy of the animals’ trainers, who weaved kid-friendly jokes in with their zoological knowledge. (The snake’s favorite subject is “hiss-tory,” if you were curious.)

Kerschner also told the patients about Ms. Piggy’s diet. She eats just one time a month, snacking on smaller critters than the ones present Thursday.

Morocco’s trainer, Lisa Jackson, taught the kids how to pet the docile porcupine: “From the front to the back – never backwards!” she warned. Jackson also gently riled him up a few times to show off his quills.

Some were more hesitant than others, but none of the children appeared to be scared of the animals. Most were willing to pet the snake and gator, though everyone in the room took a few steps back as the latter entered the room.

Bruce, a penguin, meanwhile, made some rounds through the hospital with his trainer, at one point visiting a 9-month-old girl in her room and briefly hiding behind some curtains.

Jessica and Bobby Hogue said they were happy to have Bruce visit their daughter, Violet.

“It was very special and exciting,” Bobby Hogue said. “Not expected at all, but a very unique, special way to lighten up the day for the kids and the parents.”

Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.