Santa Fe Animal Shelter nurtures empathy, compassion in youngsters
Jackson Wetherill always wanted a bunny for a pet. So when the then-11-year-old spent a few days at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter last summer learning firsthand about animals and animal care, he was in his element.
“He was really paying attention,” his mother, Barbara, said. “He had so much fun and really learned a lot.”
Critter Camp, a hands-on summer camp in animal sheltering, has been a popular program at the shelter for more than five years. Children are always welcome at the shelter, says Devin White, a former educator who now leads the Critter Camps as the shelter’s volunteer coordinator. Because children younger than 12 aren’t eligible to volunteer, and children ages 12 to 15 who want to volunteer must be accompanied by a parent or guardian, Critter Camps are tailored for the younger set.
“The children really love animals,” White says. “That’s their common element. They want to be with animals or help animals in some way. The camps help them build on what they might already know.”
In addition to learning about animals through the shelter’s various programs — such as animal care, dog walking, cat and dog socialization — the camps are chock-full of presentations by other animal-welfare groups, talks about humane education and interactive projects.
Mary Martin, the shelter’s executive director, says the intelligent conversations children have about animal welfare often take her by surprise. One discussion among the campers centered on humane euthanasia and showed that the children knew the realities of animal overpopulation and the struggles many shelters face.
“These children are remarkable not just for their willingness to spend their breaks here at the shelter, but that they care so much for animals at such a young age,” Martin says. “These are budding animal advocates and we are so fortunate to have them at the shelter. We all learn something from them.”
Iris Klimczuk-Massion, a longtime shelter volunteer and member of the all-volunteer New Mexico House Rabbit Society, says children are naturally receptive to learning about animal welfare when they are young. “It’s a perfect time to reach kids — when they are still young enough to feel a natural connection to animals as living sentient beings. Campers are always respectful of the rabbits during my presentations and often ask thoughtful questions.”
Most children have had no direct experience with house bunnies, she says, and don’t understand proper diet or handling of the delicate but enjoyable companions. And few realize that most rabbits live 10 years or more and require a long-term commitment, much like a dog or cat.
Klimczuk-Massion and other rabbit volunteers offer interactive presentations where the children sit in a circle, knee to knee, with a bunny in the middle.
“By this time in my presentation, the kids have heard that rabbits are prey animals and that they find loud noises and strange places intimidating,” she says. “They also learn that bunnies prefer to keep their feet squarely on the ground and that a bunny should be petted only if it hops over to greet the kids, which it always does.”
At the end of the presentation, campers make treat bags filled with nutritional food and toys for the shelter bunnies. “There’s something very special about preparing something the rabbits will love long after the kids have departed,” she says. “I think it makes the kids feel great.”
The children also appear in videos about their experiences and share stories about adoptable animals. These are shown to the parents at the end of weeklong camps. The parents are surprised at how much the children have learned about animals, White says.
“It’s such a nice experience to see kids understand something or learn something that they’ve never really thought about,” White says. “To see the parents’ reaction to what the children learn is just great — and how they share that knowledge, like not simply running up to an unknown animal.”
White says, “Just to be around animals is so thrilling for them. “The knowledge the children gain from the camps is powerful and can be helpful in their future. Animals really are everywhere. This gives them the right kind of tools.”
For details about the Santa Fe Animal Shelter Critter Camp, see the Summer Camp listings in this issue.
Vannah Romero-Espinoza is a repeat Critter Camper. Last summer, she attended Advanced Critter Camp, learning how the shelter helps homeless animals find a new home.
Critter Camp presenter Amy Frankowski’s bunnies Joey an Abby demonstrate that rabbits can be litter-box trained and that most of a rabbit’s diet should be fresh timothy- or other grass-based hay.