Gabriella has always enjoyed trips to the local aquarium or the Cape May Zoo. Her delight comes from the motion of her wheelchair as we snake through the trails and stop among the exhibits, but we’ve also concluded that our daughter is an animal-lover. And while it didn’t seem so at first, I now believe it started with Luna.

Several years ago, we decided to get a pet. Our son Alexander was enthusiastic, and we thought Gabriella would enjoy the companionship. We considered cats and dogs, and chose a cat because the care would be easier for us. After a trip to the shelter, and a visit with lots of felines, we fell in love with Luna (pictured).

We were unsure how our daughter would welcome our newest family member. For years, Gabriella has swept away anything that showed up on her tray with a flick of her hand and a shriek of delight; this includes Houdini, Lisa’s aunt’s beloved poodle who loves to bound into her lap. Nevertheless, we hoped Luna might be a lap-cat and climb onto the chair, but perhaps because she was a feral, she’s more standoffish and has never deigned to sit on anyone’s lap.

Instead of bonding, Gabriella and Luna eyed each other warily. Whenever I asked her what she thought about our new pet, she offered raspberries, although with a cheeky smile. Any time Luna meowed, she giggled. It’s been five years, and now she smiles and offers clicks and other happy sounds. When we’re away and we arrive home, she’s as excited to see our cat as the rest of us. As for Luna, she rubs against Gabriella’s wheels just as she does our legs, and she’ll come screeching in the middle of the night to warn us about Gabriella’s pulse ox; her urgency seems to grow when the cause of the beeping is a seizure.

Today our daughter and our cat act like TV characters who never admit how much they love each other. And Gabriella’s joy in animals has expanded beyond one undersized feline.

A week ago, we went back to Gabriella’s old school for the Halloween party (a bit early this year). After two hours of music and pizza, the Lakeview School Parents Association brought in a showman with exotic animals, including a boa constrictor, a skunk, a barn owl and a kinkajou. Gabriella sat rapt as he introduced each creature and showed it in action. While her attention span has lengthened over the past few years, this performance left her transfixed. And then we spent a day at Busch Gardens, and just like at the zoo, what pleased her most of all (even more than Elmo and the Sesame Street gang) was the aviary, where birds chirp and chitter until she shakes with laughter.

Gabriella’s favorite part of her day program is pet therapy. She’s made new friends, including Tucker, a beautiful therapy dog. She tosses the ball and he fetches it, and his owner is teaching her hand-signals to make Tucker sit and roll. We recently watched her light up when we met the two of them outside a nearby PetSmart.

Even before we headed inside together, Gabriella clicked with excitement. This continued for an hour as we shopped for treats and toys, choosing one doggie snack that featured trout and another made with alligator. Tucker led us through the aisles, making his preferences clear among the many chew-toys and stuffed animals; she also let us know which squeaks she enjoyed most. We bought her a hedgehog with a deep honking sound that she now brings to program on pet therapy day, as a new way of bonding with Tucker.

Then we proceeded through the store. After buying food for Luna, we visited the parakeet cage, where Gabriella delighted at the cheeping sounds and the hopping birds. We saw small mammals and reptiles, and tanks and tanks of fish. She loved the whole experience.

But most of all she loved being with Tucker.

For a while, it seemed Gabriella was disinterested in the animals around her, but the more we expose her to different pets and exhibits, the more we can tell she gets from this interaction. She enjoys their movement, their calls, their companionship. And now she’s more open about it: our daughter is an animal-lover.