Elaney Pickering surrounds herself with animals.
The 13-year-old Eudora middle school student enjoys her dogs, two birds, rabbits and two cats.
She recently added to her collection of pets, but these are the stuffed kind. And they represent a special trip for Elaney and her family. They are souvenirs from her Aug. 8 visit to the Louisville Zoo in Louisville, Ky., where she became a zookeeper for the day.
"It was really cool. We were all behind the scenes and everything," Elaney said. "We got to see all kinds of cool stuff."
The trip was made possible through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization that gives children with life-threatening illnesses the opportunity to fulfill one of their dreams. Elaney will face surgery in the coming years because of complications arising from a congenital heart defect.
Elaney's dream started when she saw a magazine article featuring zoos across the country.
"I kind of had to think at first, 'What zoo did I want to go to?'" Elaney said. "Then I found the Louisville Zoo, and I decided I wanted to go to that one."
She said a photo of the Louisville Zoo's baby elephant, Scotty, was the clincher.
And meeting Scotty became a highlight of her trip. She fed the elephant an orange and scampered around with him while Scotty's mom, Mikki, watched.
He wasn't exactly like she expected, Elaney said. Scotty was taller than she thought, and she learned young elephants have different skin than she expected.
"Kind of like sand paper, but not that rough," Elaney said. "And I thought that he would have little hairs - maybe a little soft."
At the end of her time with the elephants, Elaney's family received an original painting from Mikki.
"She would paint all around the canvas," Elaney said.
Elaney's zoo trip also featured time with lorikeets, a polar bear, a giraffe and an orangutan. She had the opportunity to feed them all, although she was kept a safe distance from the polar bear.
"He looks like a big, giant dog," Elaney said.
Elaney and her 8-year-old sister, Elyssa Conrad, got a surprise at the black-footed ferret habitat.
"They named one after me and one after Elyssa," Elaney said.
Normally the zoo releases the ferrets back into the wild, but Elaney and Elyssa will stay with the zoo, said her mom, Rebecca Pickering, who also went on the trip along with Elaney's stepfather, John Conrad.
Elaney topped off her experience by making her own pizza with her sister and the zoo's chef.
The Kansas chapter and the Kentucky and Southern Indiana chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation sponsored Elaney's trip.
"We're very proud of our track record in the area, and we've got about 60 kids waiting for wishes right now," said Pat Greenway, president and CEO of the Kansas Make-A-Wish Chapter.
The foundation's efforts to send Elaney to Kentucky won't soon be forgotten, her mom said.
"I think that it's wonderful. It's just such a nice thing. We had just gotten news her heart is getting a little worse and that her left ventricle is starting to enlarge," Rebecca said. "Then going on this trip is like really fun, so we'll have the fun memories."
For more information about the Make-A-Wish Foundation or to donate, call (800) 566-9474.