San Diego Zoo Ambassador Rick Schwartz introduces an animal to a patient at Rady Children's Hospital.

For many years, keepers at the San Diego Zoo have been putting smiles on the faces of some very special animal lovers at Rady Children’s Hospital.

Now, thanks to a generous donor, the young patients there are getting the chance to see the zoo's animals all the time — on a special TV network just for them called San Diego Zoo Kids.

The closed network has four hours' worth of looping programming that patients can watch in their rooms or in waiting areas. It includes highlights from the zoo’s many webcams (like its popular panda and polar bear cams), as well as taped segments with San Diego Zoo Ambassador Rick Schwartz, who introduces his audience to the zoo’s wild residents.

For Schwartz, teaching the kids at Rady Children's Hospital about animals is nothing new, but it’s one of his favorite things to do.

A Rewarding Experience

Throughout his 13 years at the San Diego Zoo, Schwartz has been packing up small mammals and birds of prey every month to visit the kids at the hospital. He says that the program has been life-changing for him, and it’s easy to see how much it means to the children — whether they’re in the hospital for a short stay or coping with a chronic illness.

“The biggest thing for me is you’ve got an audience of children and nurses and parents, and I get to see what their face looks like when they see a cute animal,” Schwartz says. “For that brief moment, everyone’s kind of forgotten they’re in a hospital… I get to see how it affects and changes their day.

“Many times we get feedback from a family member or one of the nurses, saying, ‘Thank you so much for what you do. My child hasn’t smiled or anything in the time they’ve been here and their face just lit up,’” he explains. “It’s that connection, that moment with animals, that makes such a difference in someone’s life.”

Network Set to Expand

Schwartz has seen firsthand how interactions with animals can make a difference for some of the children, and hopes that the TV network will have a big, positive impact too.

So far the network seems to be doing just that.

“Caring for sick and injured children goes beyond providing excellent medical care,” Dr. Donald B. Kearns, acting president of Rady Children’s, said in a statement last month. “With programming that is both entertaining and educational, San Diego Zoo Kids enhances our patients’ experience and contributes to an environment that promotes healing. Rady Children’s is thrilled to be the first children’s hospital in the nation to launch the new channel.”

The next step will be packaging the programming to make it available to other children’s hospitals around the country. Schwartz expects the expansion to happen in the spring.

“Clearly we have pets and animals around us to help us feel better,” he says. “It just makes complete sense that these two nonprofits got together to make this happen.”