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By Mike Terry, Deseret News

Hundreds of shrieking, laughing children swarmed Utah's Hogle Zoo Friday — but the happy evening was anything but normal for the zoo and its guests.

The children and families petted tortoises and boa constrictors, learned about a small one-eyed owl and watched an African elephant do tricks while dozens of zoo volunteers gave their all to create a memorable experience.

The event was part of the worldwide "Dream Nights at the Zoo" program, which allows chronically ill and disabled children and their families to learn about animals without charge, in a safe, welcoming setting. The zoo was closed to the general public.

"Aah! It's sharp," 13-year-old Joseph Garner of Bountiful said, after touching a replica of alligator teeth held out by a volunteer. Joseph then chuckled and stuck his head inside the plastic jaw replica, pretending to be eaten alive. A patient volunteer holding the jaw made sure he was safe.

"I think it's fantastic," Joseph's father, Hunt Garner, said. "Normally I have to restrain my son. Now he's around other kids who kind of make a spectacle of themselves, too."

The zoo offered free face painting, train rides and even sneak-preview rides on the new carousel, which won't officially open until today at 9 a.m.

One child on the carousel giggled throughout the ride.

Children came in their parents' arms and in wheelchairs, walkers and special strollers. Others walked and ran, approaching strangers as comfortably as they would their own families. The understanding environment created an experience that would be impossible any other day.

Spencer Baugh came to Dream Nights with his parents and two siblings all the way from southern Utah. Spencer, a tow-headed 3-year-old, has cerebral palsy.

"It kind of takes over his whole life," said his mother, Emily Baugh. "But (the kids) have been so excited for this. Bags have been packed for a week. This is wonderful."

Dream Nights started in a zoo in the Netherlands in 1996. By 2004, the idea had spread to the U.S. The Hogle Zoo caught on last year, and spokeswoman Holly Braithewaite said the program is growing rapidly. About 200 zoos now participate.

"It's hard to want to come out, hard to want to do anything," said the mother of 10-year-old Kiercy Lines, who has autism and Tourette's syndrome. "But here you're surrounded by other people like this. It makes it a lot easier."

And Kiercy was overjoyed. "It's soft," she exclaimed after touching a small rosy boa. Running to her mother, jumping in place, she said, "I touched a snake! It's a boa!" The girl then ran off toward the elephants and monkeys.

Dream Nights takes place worldwide the first Friday of June each year. Food is provided free for each family, and all zoo employees donate their time.

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