4 Life Lessons Learned at the San Diego Zoo

She worked at the zoo for more than 40 years; the animals taught her about friendship, courage, resilience and more.

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- Posted on Apr 24, 2020

Georgeanne Irvine holding a flamingo.

My career at the San Diego Zoo started back in 1978. As a child, I often visited this zoo, and getting a job there was a dream come true. At first, I didn’t know much about the issues facing wildlife, but I quickly learned that many species were—and still are—in trouble and desperately need our help.

Initially, I worked in public relations and fundraising. Then, in 2017, I helped launch the San Diego Zoo Global Press, which publishes books for adults and children. I write the Hope and Inspiration children’s series, which features true stories about animals at the zoo and its Safari Park that have overcome challenges and hardships in their lives. The animals I write about hold a special place in my heart.

I wanted these books to introduce children to a specific animal, help them grow to love that animal and then teach them the importance of protecting all animals. The books have had a greater impact than I ever expected: Young readers have learned important life lessons through the stories. To be honest, so have I.

Friendship Heals

The zoo has paired cheetahs and dogs as animal ambassadors since the 1980s. Cheetahs are shy and nervous and need the comfort of their canine companions. Because the cub and pup are raised together, they form strong, lifelong bonds. Ruuxa, a cheetah cub at the Safari Park, and Raina, a Rhodesian ridgeback puppy, were like brother and sister from the start. Keepers noticed that young Ruuxa’s legs were bowed. Veterinarians were unsure if he’d ever be able to run, even after surgery, but no one told Ruuxa he couldn’t. With Raina by his side during recovery, it wasn’t long before he was running at top speed.

When Raina was two, veterinarians discovered several tumors in her body and diagnosed her with terminal cancer. Raina had just months to live! Trainers were heartbroken for her and worried how Ruuxa would do without her. They brought in Little Rae, a Rhodesian ridgeback puppy, hoping this new friend would be there for Ruuxa when Raina was gone.

Then something amazing happened: Raina didn’t die. She didn’t even seem sick anymore. Another scan showed that the two smaller tumors had disappeared and the larger tumor had shrunk enough so it could be removed. Three rounds of chemotherapy later, she was cancer-free. Today Ruuxa, Raina and Little Rae live together. Their friendship reminds me to believe in miracles.

Courage is Contagious

Karen, a Sumatran orangutan, was raised by keepers because her mother wasn’t able to nurse her. At a year old, Karen wasn’t growing as quickly as she should have been. Veterinarians discovered a penny-size hole in her heart. She needed open-heart surgery, which had never been done on an orangutan.

Two of the world’s top cardiac surgeons volunteered to repair Karen’s heart. For two weeks following the surgery, Karen remained on a ventilator because of a lung infection, and doctors were concerned she might not survive. Finally, she started breathing on her own.

Karen’s story was all over the news. Letters poured in from around the world. One get-well card came from a five-year-old girl named Jennie, who was fighting leukemia. She promised to visit Karen as soon as she was well enough. Jennie beat cancer and grew up to become an emergency room nurse. To this day, Jennie still visits Karen at the zoo every chance she gets. Sharing the challenges we face can help others summon the bravery to overcome their own challenges.

Make the Most of What You’ve Been Given

Seven years ago, Floyd the flamingo was hatched and started his training to be an animal ambassador at the zoo. As Floyd grew, his caretakers noticed that his legs were crooked, and it looked as if he had two left feet. He went through a series of surgeries to straighten his legs. Still, no one was sure Floyd would ever walk again. He worked hard to regain his strength and balance, and when he took his first steps on his own, his trainers cried with joy. Floyd rejoined his flock and returned to his job as an animal ambassador.

One day last December, Floyd fell. His legs were injured so badly, there was nothing veterinarians could do. It was devastating to lose Floyd, but he lived seven wonderful years—time he never would have had if he hadn’t persevered. He showed me that life isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth living.

It’s Never Too Late to Fulfill Your Purpose

When Mosi Musa, a vervet monkey, was born, his mother showed no interest in caring for him. But his grandma, Thelma, was drawn to him. She cuddled and held him and taught him to be a monkey. Mosi grew confident and independent, thanks to his grandma, and soon he was able to live full-time with his vervet family.

Eventually Thelma’s health failed. I visited her shortly before she died. Even in her weakened state, she continued to be protective of Mosi. She fulfilled her purpose until the end. Thelma reminded me that we’re never too old to make a difference, a message that resonates with me as I approach an age at which many people retire. I love what I do and plan to help animals for as long as I can.

These days I’m busy observing and sometimes photographing close to 10 animals for future children’s books. There’s something fascinating about not knowing how each story will turn out. It’s a lot like life, I guess—not knowing where it will go is part of the adventure.

I’ve learned so much about different species over the course of my career. All I’ve ever wanted to do was share that knowledge. That’s why I started writing these books, to teach people about animals. As it turns out, the animals are the real teachers.

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