Good Zoo Offers Close Encounters With Animals

Emma, 13, who has brain cancer, feeds one of two red pandas at the Oglebay Good Zoo as part of a zookeeper experience she was granted through the Cancer Kiss My Cooley organization. Photos Provided

WHEELING — Oglebay’s Good Zoo made the dreams of a 13-year-old girl with cancer come true this summer by providing a close encounter with a red panda. And with recent changes to its programming and physical facilities, the zoo hopes to provide more opportunities to grant wishes and accommodate people with disabilities.

In June, a wish-granting organization called Cancer Kiss My Cooley near Chicago contacted the zoo about providing the red panda encounter to Emma (no last name provided), who adores the Asian mammals. While 50 to 60 U.S. facilities have red pandas, zoo director Joe Greathouse said the Good Zoo is one of only a handful that offers such encounters; the others are in Houston, Knoxville and Cincinnati.

Not only did Emma subsequently get to meet resident red pandas Junjie and Amber in August, but she also held Sweet Pea, the two-toed sloth; hung out with meerkats Nala, Rafiki and Banga, and enjoyed bottle-feeding Jackson, a 4-month-old red-necked wallaby.

It was “the ultimate zookeeper experience,” according to Cancer Kiss My Cooley’s report of Emma’s experience on its website, The resort also provided lodging for Emma and her family, as well as amenities such as massages, paddle boats, miniature golf, swimming and more.

As a final surprise, the zoo team provided Emma with a painting created by Junjie and Amber.

“She was very happy. It was a very nice experience for her,” Greathouse said.

Greathouse said the encounters allow guests to get up close and personal with the animals, feed them and learn about them from their caretakers.

The encounters have been offered since 2007, but Greathouse said last year they added several more animals to the list. In addition to the red pandas, meerkats, sloth and wallabies, encounters are offered with the kangaroos, North American river otters, serval (wild cat), domestic animals and the four new lemurs that are housed in the zoo building in the former snake and frog area across from the python enclosure. That area has been made wheelchair accessible, and Greathouse hopes to provide more opportunities for wish-granting organizations to bring in people of all ages.

Visitors come from 30 states and Canada to visit the zoo, Greathouse said, and last month, a woman flew in from Germany to experience the red panda encounter.

Another new opportunity at the zoo is a sleepover birthday party, where children ages 10-12 are invited to bring their sleeping bags and camp out in the planetarium, where they can watch movies on the big screen and can visit the animals at night.

Right now the zoo is preparing for the annual Boo at the Zoo attraction, which will take place Oct. 13-15, Oct. 20-22 and Oct. 27-29. For tickets, visit or call the zoo, 304-243-4100.