Photos: Check out the micro zoo in Orange

June 2, 2018 GMT

While walking down his church hallway one day, Chester Moore said he felt God nudge him to ask a young girl who’d just lost her father to tell him about her favorite animal.

Six weeks later, Moore and Anayeli Hernandez, 11, were face-to-face with a zebra in Jasper.

Hernandez seemed to find “such peace” petting the animal, even feeding it out of her hand, Moore recalled.

That was “Wild Wish” No. 1.

In 2014, Moore, a wildlife journalist who has trekked through South American jungles and cage-dived with a great white shark, founded the Kingdom Zoo Wildlife Center in Orange.

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In the years since, his nonprofit has fulfilled more than 60 “Wild Wishes,” giving grieving children exotic animal encounters.

An “incredible breakthrough moment” happens when a child pets a tortoise, feeds a mountain coatimundi or holds a sugar glider in the palm of their hand, Moore said.

Even though Moore has seen some incredible creatures in his 44 years, the Orange native said there’s nothing like when “a zebra starts loving on you.”

“Pure religion is caring for widows and orphans,” Moore said, referring to a scripture in James 1:27. “Well, this is caring for orphans.”

“God loves them, we love them,” he said.

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Moore said he wants children who have lost a parent or sibling or who are suffering from a terminal illness to know “good things can still happen to them.”

“The heart of what we’re doing is ... for hurting children,” Moore said.

Moore’s micro-zoo houses 75 species from six continents. When he started in 2014, he had a few ferrets, then a ball python then a hedgehog.

“It just grew from there,” he said.

Located at the Family Worship Center of Orange, Kingdom Zoo provides regular outreach programs at Girls’ Haven, Boys’ Haven of America Inc. and Buckner Children’s Village.

A public event is planned for Saturday at the zoo to allow the community to “have some access to what we’re doing,” Moore said.

Moore said he basically “came out of the womb loving wildlife.”

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Inspired by his late grandmother Ruby Pickard’s organization, My Wish Inc., and drawing from his passion for wildlife, Moore’s “Wild Wishes” have connected children with everything from penguins and giraffes to leopard cats and wolves, he said.

If Moore doesn’t have the “Wild Wish” animal at his Kingdom Zoo, he reaches out to someone within his network of animal lovers for help.

In addition to healing, the animals teach important life lessons, Moore said.

“Kids identify with animals,” he said.

As an example, he talks to kids about Capt. Jack, a one-eyed hedgehog that lives at his park.

He reminds them he’d never be mean to Capt. Jack just because he’s missing an eye. He encourages children to show kindness and respect to each other, the same way they show love to furry friends.

Moore said he lives by the three C’s - “Christ, children and critters” - and he hopes to inspire others to do the same.