Spending a summer taking care of animals, learning about their habitats or having regular encounters with a variety of creatures can change a child’s life.
Research shows that kids’ exposure to animals helps them develop a sense of compassion, environmental awareness and responsibility, among other things. Furthermore, animal encounters may also spark an interest in fields like veterinary medicine, zoology and marine biology.
Fortunately, the Bay Area is thriving with summer camps where kids can learn about, watch and sometimes touch animals.
If your child can’t get enough of animals from around the world like elephants, tigers and giraffes, a zoo camp may be a great option. Both the Oakland and San Francisco zoos offer weeklong day camps featuring such activities as zoo tours, animal encounters, arts and crafts, games, animal shows and zookeeper talks and feedings.
At the Oakland Zoo, the camps throughout the summer are tailored for ages 4 through teen with a variety of different themes like animal families, predators and prey, and jobs at the zoo, says Zoo Camp Director Liz Low.
"The thing that makes it special is each class gets animal close-ups," she says. "They get to be in a room with an animal that they are not going to be able to get this close to otherwise. They get a behind-the-scenes tour with the zookeepers."
The camps cost $206-359 with discounts for members and those who sign up for multiple weeks. Registration begins March 6 for members and March 13 for non-members.
At the San Francisco Zoo, there are weeklong day camps throughout the summer for ages 4-13. Zoo officials hadn’t decided at press time whether there would be a teen camp.
What’s exciting this year, says Sarah Riemer, director of education, is that the zoo has two new animal exhibits – wolves and Coquerel’s sifaka, a type of lemur from Madagascar.
Campers will get a behind-the-scenes look at these animals and others each week and enjoy a variety of other activities such as games and crafts, says Riemer.
Camps cost $250-400 per week and $575-675 if you sign up for two weeks. There are member discounts.
Going to zoo camp can be beneficial for children in a variety of ways, says Riemer.
"Children and animals have a natural connection," she says. "It’s comfortable for children to be in the same space with animals."
The Oakland Zoo’s Low agrees.
"Kids interact with these animals and are more inclined to help protect them later in life," she says. "It’s creating stewards who are going to care for wildlife in the future."
Learning about local wildlife is another way kids can enjoy animal connections.
At WildCare in San Rafael, campers get up close with mostly native animals that can no longer live in the wild.
The hospital and education center typically has 20 to 24 animals living there that cannot be released back into the wild because of injuries usually caused by humans.
Some of the activities campers may experience include touching and learning about the animals at the center, going for hikes to search for animal tracks, wildlife-themed games, preparing meals for animals and nature crafts.
The camps are separated by age groups in kindergarten through sixth grades, and they have themes like "Animal Neighbors," "Feathers, Fur and Scales," "Secrets of Survival," "Conservation Camp" and "Watery World of Wildlife."
Prices for half-day camps range $170-190 for half day and $320-340 for full day, and there are scholarships.
This kind of exposure to animals is so important for kids, says Eileen Jones, education program manager at WildCare.
"You don’t care about things you don’t know about. Most of the animals are here because of interaction with humans," she says. "It’s important that children have empathy for animals."
Similar to WildCare is Sulphur Creek, a wild animal hospital and education center in Hayward that offers a variety of camps for ages 3½ to 14 years old.
Campers get close to animals like owls, opossums and snakes at its serene location next to a creek in the Hayward hills. Each week has a special theme, packed with games, crafts, hikes and animals.
There’s also the Kids and Critter Care camp where kids ages 7 to 11 get a behind-the-scenes look at how to care for injured animals, a leadership camp where 9- to 12-year olds can help younger campers and Junior Biologist Camp (ages 10-14) where campers get to do things like dissect plants and animals.
Spending time at a farm can be a very unique way for kids to interact with animals.
At Hidden Villa, a working farm in the Los Altos Hills, the camp experience goes beyond farming.
It was founded in 1945 by Frank and Josephine Duveneck specifically to address racism and foster cross-cultural understanding. Today, it still continues its mission of social justice and environmental stewardship with a diverse group of campers and staff.
In the midst of taking care of farm animals and learning about organic farming, campers learn what it means to live in a community, develop better multicultural understanding and appreciation, resolve conflicts peacefully, develop independence and overcome personal challenges.
"Being a program dedicated to social justice, working with farm animals is an opportunity to have shared experiences," says Niki Bryant, director of youth programs at Hidden Villa.
Campers do such chores as milk cows and goats, feed chickens, take goats for walks, bathe animals and take care of the garden.
There are camps for kids in preschool through 12th grade with day programs, overnight programs, backpacking trips, youth leadership opportunities and teen apprenticeships. The camps cost between $395 per week for a day program and $2,525 for overnight trips, and scholarships are offered.
"To create a diverse group of campers we offer a lot of spaces for people coming on scholarships," Bryant says.
At Slide Ranch along the beautiful Marin coast, campers milk goats, care for chickens, hike, explore tide pools, do crafts, work in the organic garden, make fresh food, learn about plant and animal ecosystems, and more.
There are camps throughout the summer for ages 5 to 13 as well as a junior counselor program for teens. It costs $400-500 per week and scholarships are available.
The camp focuses on teaching respect for animals, plants, the earth and each other, says Ethan Zatko, Slide Ranch’s program director.
"What we’re trying to teach is that there’s an interconnected mutuality and that all things originate from plants and animals," he says.
Marine Life Camps
For kids who can’t get enough of sea life, a marine camp may be a good fit.
At Camp Sea Quest run through the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands, campers in kindergarten through sixth grades learn about marine science and ocean conservation.
The Marine Mammal Center is a veterinary hospital and education center so campers get a look at sick and injured sea life like elephant seals, sea lions, otters and dolphins.
"We always collect an excited group of campers who want to be veterinarians or marine biologists someday," says Sara Smith, school and extended learning program coordinator at the Marine Mammal Center. "We do science experiments in the classrooms and go out every day and explore the Headlands."
But it’s not just for budding veterinarians, she says.
"It’s a great environment for any camper who wants to meet new people, learn about animals and be in the outdoors," Smith says.
The camp costs $400 per week for members and $450 for non-members. Scholarships are available.
The Marine Science Institute in Redwood City also has some great camps for children to learn about ocean animals.
The camps for kids in kindergarten through 12th grades feature interactions with live animals, field trips across the bay aboard the institute’s research vessel as well as other activities such as crafts and games. There’s also an overnight camp for older campers where they get to do more detailed exploration and volunteer opportunities.
Depending on age, the camps range in price from $440 per week to $1,300 for the overnight camps, and scholarships are offered.
Animal Shelter Camps
Children wanting to focus on pet care can find some great camps through an animal shelter.
At the East Bay SPCA, there are weeklong day camps for kids in first through 12th grades.
Whether kids just want a little education and experience before adopting a pet or they want to be a veterinarian someday, the center offers programs tailored for each age group.
For example, kids in younger grades may learn about caring for animals, their needs, and spaying and neutering, while also having interactions with animals at the center, says Justin Kurup, humane education manager at the East Bay SPCA.
High school-age campers may have the opportunity to practice basic veterinary skills, view a surgery, help with training animals and complete a service-learning project on animal activism.
Located in Dublin and Oakland, the camps cost $375-395 per week, and there are scholarships. Registration starts March 1.
It’s so important for kids to have interaction with animals, Kurup says.
"We inhabit this earth and share this earth with animals. Kids have to learn how to have respect and empathy for animals," he says. "There’s a link between how we treat animals and how we treat people."
Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
East Bay SPCA: eastbayspca.org/what-we-do/humane-education/animal-camp/.
Hidden Villa: www.hiddenvilla.org/programs/summer-camps.
Marine Mammal Center: Camp Sea Quest: www.marinemammalcenter.org/education/camps/.
Marine Science Institute: www.sfbaymsi.org/marinecamp.
Oakland Zoo: www.oaklandzoo.org/zoocamp.php.
San Francisco Zoo: www.sfzoo.org/learn/zoo-camp.htm.
Slide Ranch: slideranch.org/upcoming-summer-camps-2017/.
Sulphur Creek: www.haywardrec.org/181/wildlife-camp.