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Belfast Zoo animal magic as sick kids and their families enjoy Dreamnight

By David Young

More than 250 families from all over Northern Ireland packed in to Belfast Zoo last night to experience Dreamnight, a special annual event that gives children with life-limiting conditions and their families a chance to have the zoo all to themselves.

The summer evening air was filled with squeals of delight as the children and their families took part in feeding the animals and played on bouncy castles.

It's the 11th year that a Dreamnight event has been held at Belfast Zoo. It's organised by zoo staff, in conjuction with the NI Cancer Fund for Children, the Children's Hospice and the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children.

Joining in the fun by flinging some raw meat to the zoo's lions was Guy Spence, Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast.

"This has been a fantastic night," he said.

"I've fed giraffes, I've fed lions, but most importantly I've seen so many smiles on the faces of so many children and their families. That's what this event is all about - opening up the zoo, making our facilities available to bring pleasure to people who deserve a special opportunity to enjoy themselves.

"The children are fizzing with excitement. For many, it's the first time they have visited the zoo. It's a pleasure be be part of such a worthwhile event."

Gareth Beattie of the Cancer Fund for Children said: "Every year Dreamnight just gets better and better. Families have come from as far away as Strabane and Fermanagh to be here this evening - a five-hour round trip.

"Dreamnight is our best family and community event of the year. Some families even co-ordinate their child's cancer treatment to ensure that the child is able to be part of Dreamnight. These families' children are facing a diffcult time - so it's lovely to see so many of them enjoying themselves.

"Seeing everyone smiling and having the best fun ever is a great buzz for me, and it's great for the parents."

For some, he said, this is the happiest they have ever seen their children.

Zoo manager Mark Challis said: "Putting on Dreamnight is hard work, but we love it.

"It's a lovely, very rewarding event to put on, and your heart goes out to the families who come here.

"They're having a tough time and it's great that the zoo can deliver so special an event for them."

Wheelchair user Wendy Alexander, who had brought her two daughters to the Dreamnight event, said: "This an absolutely fantastic event. I couldn't thank everyone enough - the zoo staff, the charities and the organisations like the PSNI and the Army who put on special displays for us.

"The work these people do is just amazing."

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