People are going to remember 2020 for many reasons, Chahinkapa Zoo Director Kathy Diekman said.
They’ll remember the COVID-19 pandemic, a long and seemingly never-ending election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden and financial insecurity, of course. But they’ll remember more than the bad.
“I’m going to remember a year that our community reached out even more,” Diekman said. “In Wahpeton and Breckenridge, Minnesota, we have a great community. We reached out to our neighbors, friends, retailers, non-profits. People supported people in a huge way in 2020.”
Chahinkapa Zoo continues to reach out to special members of the Twin Towns Area community. Known for bringing animals and animal education to residents of Benedictine St. Catherine’s, Siena Court and the Leach Home, Wahpeton, the zoo stepped up its efforts in 2020.
“Way before virtual life was an everyday thing, Bonnie Halvorson would do our outreach videos,” Diekman recalled. “It was part of our outreach.”
Diekman has always counted the Twin Towns Area’s elderly population as among her friends. If they can get half as much enjoyment and enrichment out of an animal visit or education experience as the Chahinkapa Zoo staff does, that it is a very good thing indeed.
“We started our work way before the pandemic. And then the pandemic came and while we were trying to manage our work at the zoo, we were thinking and feeling a lot about the people in the community. If I’m feeling isolated during this time, what must they feel like? It weighed on us. We wondered, how can we help?” Diekman said.
Through projects like “Zoo4Life,” held at Siena Court among other places, countless elderly residents became like members of the Chahinkapa Zoo family. Those feelings of goodwill and support continued in 2020.
“Management has been most appreciated and helpful,” Diekman said. “They love when we take the animals out. The animals are so therapeutic, for ourselves and for the elderly.”
In 2020 alone, Chahinkapa Zoo introduced the public to llamas, horses, snakes, tortoises, owls and bison. Cassie Miller is an RN supervisor with the Leach Home.
“These visits literally give the elderly a sense of worth,” Miller said. “Right now, they’re all struggling with self-isolation and all that comes with it. It gives them such joy to see the animals and to have a safe visit.”
Diekman, Zoo Curator Tom Schmaltz and the Chahinkapa Zoo staff have become known for strolling the perimeter of locations including the Leach Home. Residents stand by the windows, eager to get a face to face look at the animal guests.
“Many people seem to like the llama,” Miller said. “Of course, some don’t. It gets up close to the window, so it’s always in their faces. A lot of our residents grew up on farms and I think the animal visits bring them back to that.”
An animal visit is an exciting event for all involved, Miller said. In addition to the Leach Home residents, there’s the zoo staff.
“They’re not just bringing these animals merely to show them off. They’re bringing a lot of energy when they come. We all love it,” Miller said.
Animal visits not only feel like a party, they sometimes come with a party. Diekman recalled a tailgating event where in addition to the llamas and company, they brought coolers of root beer for the elderly.
“Oh, we’ve brought camels. In the spring, we had a sock hop. We had our chickens, ducks and bunnies, plus everyone got a pair of wild socks,” she said.
Numerous professionals have joined the Chahinkapa Zoo staff on their visits. They include Don Carey, the “Bug Man” of Fargo, North Dakota.
“He brought his chemistry lab and insects, which allowed for some learning. We had Nolan Lemna, who brought his 4H animals. That was a lot of fun,” Diekman said.
Other learning experiences included the time senior citizens participated in a chemical mobilization clinic. They’ve gotten to know the feel of a dart gun and understand what goes into preparing an animal’s diet.
“That’s always fascinating, learning about nutrition. Of course, the live animals are where the action is. Seeing — and touching, when we could allow that — an up close animal provides more excitement than words can say,” Diekman said.
Diekman remains optimistic that Chahinkapa Zoo will continue to provide entertainment and education for elderly people in the Twin Towns Area.
“In the meantime, if they come to the windows and watch us, we’ll be there,” she said.
Nobody wants to go through a pandemic, Diekman said. And yet, dark clouds have silver linings.
“There is good in every day,” Diekman continued. “We’re experiencing a lot of fright right now. If we can give people joy for even just an hour, they can be in that moment and have a really good thing to experience.”