Make-A-Wish North Texas celebrated a milestone when 7 year-old Zander received his wish to be a zookeeper, marking the 7,000th wish granted in North Texas. Dallas Zookeeper Sean presented Zander with his official zookeeper uniform and told the honorary zookeeper that he would soon spend a day with all the animals he loved. What Zander didn’t expect was that his zookeeper skills would soon be put to the test!
Zander wears his love for his favorite animals on his sleeve. Literally. Snakes, dinosaurs, crocodiles and alligators can be found on most of Zander’s t-shirts and displayed on posters lining the walls in his bedroom. Being only 7 years-old, Zander was confident when telling his Wish Granters what he wanted…to be a zookeeper where he could study and care for all animals.
Zander’s wish experience began when he was declared an honorary zookeeper by The Dallas Zoo at Make-A-Wish North Texas’ 16th Annual Wish Night® Gala. Gala attendees were introduced to the lively little boy whose love for animals were made apparent when Dallas Zookeeper Sean walked on stage with Sid the Penguin, just one of many Dallas Zoo penguins. Zookeeper Sean, and Sid the Penguin, presented Zander with his official Dallas Zookeeper uniform, hat and keys and told Zander that he would soon be at the zoo to spend a day with all the animals. What Zander didn’t expect was that his zookeeper skills would truly be put to the test! Minutes after taking over his honorary position, Zander received breaking news from WFAA’s Rebecca Lopez informing him that an alligator named Chompy had been spotted in the Dallas area and he was the only one qualified to track and rescue the alligator. Thankfully for Dallas residents, Zander was up for the task and thankfully for Zander, Chompy was a cuddly stuffed animal.
For the next two weeks, people all over the world helped Zander in his search for Chompy. By utilizing the Make-A-Wish North Texas facebook page, supporters could post photos of alligator tracks they happened to come across in their home, business, airport, garden or while on vacation. The reptile was spotted everywhere from right here in Texas on the back of a horse, to the White House, to the Empire State Building, Paris, New Zealand and the list goes on. People became part of a rapidly growing search team by encouraging the honorary zookeeper on facebook as he kept the public up-to-date on his wish with daily videos where he shared everything from educational messages, such as describing the difference between an alligator and a crocodile, to sharing his alligator dance or running from room to room in his new crocodile Crocs! New “likes” for the Make-A-Wish facebook page helped unlock tools Zander needed to complete his alligator search and rescue. By the end of his search, the unlocked items ranged anywhere from Jeeps, to a GPS and compass, walkie talkies, binoculars, nets, reptile protection gloves and rope.
Exactly two weeks after being announced an honorary zookeeper, Zander was called to the Make-A-Wish North Texas office to investigate alligator tracks and a mysterious note that was discovered earlier that morning by a staff member. Zander quickly changed into his official zookeeper outfit, hopped in his “Chompy Tracking” Jeep and made his way to The Wishing Place. After a delicious breakfast donated by Chick-fil-A, Zander packed his bag of tools that were unlocked thanks to the “likes” on facebook and read a note that was left by the reptile himself! Chompy’s note to Zander asked if he wanted to test his zookeeper skills by participating in the “Chompy Challenge!” where Chompy would be able to test Zander’s abilities by rescuing a few other furry animals that were scattered around Dallas. Chompy wanted to make sure Zander was, in fact, the one qualified enough to deliver him to his new home at The Dallas Zoo. Minutes after accepting the challenge, a letter from former president George W. Bush was delivered to The Wishing Place for the search team’s leader. The former president asked for Zander to stop by the Presidential Center construction site to investigate animal tracks found by a construction worker. With a challenge in hand and a presidential request, Zander and the rest of the Chompy Search Team loaded the 5 Jeep convoy and hit the road in hot pursuit. The Chompy Challenge led Zander, and the rest of the search team, to multiple locations where Zander could show off his animal expertise. As Zander rescued each animal, he received a clue from Chompy leading him closer to the reptile’s whereabouts.
The Jeep convoy, official Dallas Zoo vehicle, and 7 police escorts made stops at the George W. Bush Presidential Center construction site, the AT&T Performing Arts Center and Dallas Museum of Art to save a gorilla, snake and bird before the honorary zookeeper received his final clue to head to the Omni Dallas Hotel where Chompy had supposedly checked himself in after two weeks of exhausting world-wide travel.
Having received news that the alligator was getting some much needed r&r at the hotel, Make-A-Wish fans gathered to await the arrival of their fearless search team leader. The crowd watched Zander’s every move on the big screens as he hopped in and out of the Jeep at each location throughout the morning. The video continued until Zander made his way to the ballroom doors where the rest of the search team was waiting. Zander read the final clue left on the ballroom doors and entered the dark ballroom to find a mob of people chanting his name in encouragement as he would soon find the alligator that needed a new home. He made his way through the crowd following the alligator tracks leading him to a tent Chompy had been “camping out” in. Zander unzipped the tent, entered, and emerged holding the cuddly alligator high above his head in excitement. The crowd went wild with cheers and congratulatory remarks for the brave 7-year-old zookeeper!
Zander was ushered on stage where he received an award for his bravery and as a token for his hard work, the Dallas Zoo gifted Zander with adoptive rights to a real life Nile Crocodile at the zoo named Monster! Just then, a video displayed on the ballroom screens caught the room’s attention as it was a live message from another famous zookeeper, Jack Hanna. Mr. Hanna told Zander how proud he was of him for rescuing Chompy and gave Zander news that he was off to The Dallas Zoo for lunch with the zookeepers and would take a behind the scenes tour of the zoo as he learned and cared for each animal.
Because Zander showed phenomenal zookeeper skills during the entire scavenger hunt, Chompy felt his new home shouldn’t be at the Dallas Zoo, but with Zander at his home. Being completely satisfied with his new roommate, Zander and his search team continued on to The Dallas Zoo for an afternoon of excitement. Full from chicken strips, pizza, cheetos, sweet tea and Reese’s Pieces, Zander’s first stop of the afternoon was the popular bird show SOAR, A Festival of Flight, where he sat up front as trained birds soared, swooped and dove as they performed aerobatic feats.
Next, it was off to the other side of the zoo to feed the penguins. Zander also learned about elephants and countless other zoo animals before stopping for a much needed ice cream break at the Serengeti Grill.
Just before his day would come to a close, Zander and Zookeeper Bradley walked hand-in-hand as they made their way to feed the Nile Crocodiles. As this was Zander’s preferred animal, Zookeeper Bradley spent extra time teaching Zander everything he needed to know to be a crocodile’s keeper. Zander rang the dinner bell and watched as the massive creatures appeared from the depths of the lagoon for the afternoon snack Zookeeper Bradley had prepared.
After spending the afternoon as a zookeeper, participating in a morning scavenger hunt through Downtown Dallas and two weeks full of searching for an alligator, Zander and his family enjoyed a relaxing limo ride back home to catch some much needed rest.