WINSTON, Ore. – About once a month, elephants Tiki, Alice and George get a special visit from 10-year-old Wylie Malek.
"Wylie was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 3," said his father, Kris Malek. "When he started school about kindergarten they kind of moved it up to a high functioning autism."
For some children with autism, animal interaction improves their social skills and decreases anxiety. That can mean dogs, cats, rabbits -- or elephants? At Wildlife Safari, Wylie has bonded with animals 312 times his size.
"This is the one animal," Kris Malek said. "I mean he's been interested in elephants basically since he climbed out of the womb."
Wylie found elephants – and people interested in elephants – at Wildlife Safari in Winston, Ore.
"People kind of tend to be really complicated," said Katie Alayan, senior elephant keeper at Wildlife Safari. "Animals are a lot simpler. They're a lot easier to understand, they're a lot easier to relate to in some ways, especially for a child who might not have the same social abilities."
The interaction has given Wylie, now a junior elephant keeper, a goal.
"When I grow up, I want to work here," he said.
In some ways, he already does.
"He'll actually help us when we're doing baths and things like that," Alayan said, "Putting their ears out, picking their feet up, he helps us scrub on them."
Volunteering at the Safari gives Wylie a sense of responsibility.
"He calls it work," his father said. "He tells his sisters all the time he's got to go to work – or go to his job is usually how he phrases it."
Wylie has told the the elephant trainers stories about dinosaurs and dragons, but he can tell you facts about the elephants.
"Wylie can say all the weird things in the world he wants to. The elephants don't care," his dad joked. "They think that's probably just normal. Heck he could have a normal conversation with an elephant all day long I guess."
The staff at Wildlife Safari said the once-timid 10 year old has really come out of his shell.
"It's so rewarding for us as people who care for these animals everyday, day in and day out," Alayan said. "We love to interact with someone who clearly gets so much out of them."
"Being around wylie and watching him learn things that most kids don't get to, there's no words to describe it," said Timothy Hamilton, another elephant keeper. "Just watching him smile makes me ecstatic."