A short video featuring a gleeful little boy playing follow-the-leader with a sea lion somehow turned into a viral story that spread across the globe. That boy is my son, and I never dreamed that a visit to the zoo could be the catalyst for such a surprising chain of events and an unexpected opportunity, with my son’s permission, to share special-needs awareness.
(Note: revised and abridged version HERE)
My children love animals, and had been anxiously anticipating a visit to the National Zoo in Washington, DC. They could not wait to meet Bao Bao, the new baby panda. The first day that weather and circumstances permitted we jumped into the car for a trek up North, leaving early so that we could be on the zoo grounds before the buildings opened. Our intent was to get in line to see Bao Bao right as her exhibit opened, before the crowd got too large. Our walk to the pandas took us past the took us past the Sea Lion exhibit, and we entered an underground observation area which provided a clear glimpse beneath the surface of their watery enclosure. No one else was around. A young sea lion almost immediately appeared at the glass and stared straight at my 7-year-old son, seemingly attracted to the contrasting colors on his coat. The beautiful animal began to shadow his movements and Alex cried out, “He LIKES ME!” Little did we know at the time that the sea lion was actually a girl, named Sophie, and that Sophie regularly initiates games with her visitors. My son was simply happy that, for just a moment, Sophie was choosing to play with him. I watched it, transfixed, and then realized, “I SHOULD BE RECORDING THIS!” I fumbled for the camera, fully expecting that by the time I was ready to preserve the precious encounter it would be over. While I recorded she kept pace for several minutes, surfacing only for air. I began to make suggestions (“Move left. Freeze!”) to test if she was truly mimicking him. This caused my oldest son, Zachary, to remark, “She is TOTALLY following him!” Alex, who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, could barely contain his joy and shouted, “THIS IS THE BEST THING OF MY LIFE!” He often struggles with feelings of isolation, as do many children with special needs, and to see him so happy and in sync with his new friend struck a chord deep within my heart. Time seemed to freeze and we were mesmerized watching the two moving together as if in a dance. There was the feeling that we were alone with a magical creature in our own beautiful world.