Crit­ter com­forts

Santa Fe An­i­mal Shel­ter nur­tures em­pa­thy, com­pas­sion in young­sters

Kids Summer - - Inside - Story and Pho­tos by Ben Swan

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.

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