Instilling a Love for Animals and Nature at Critter Camp

Jul 13, 2022

In a shady spot on the grounds

of Gray Willows Farm, a couple dozen kids – all part of Anderson Humane’s Critter Camps – stood transfixed by a trio of birds. Three adults faced the crowd of kids, each one holding one of the raptors – a red-tailed hawk, a barn owl, and an American kestrel – while they explained what the birds eat, how their hearing is so much better than that of humans, and how they came to be part of the educational non-profit Wings and Talons.

It was the final week of Anderson Humane’s Critter Camp and the campers were enjoying some of the many animal visitors. Throughout the four weeks of camp, the kids met turtles, snakes, some of our Healing Paws therapy dogs, cows at nearby Lenkaitis Holstein Farm, scent dogs with the DuPage County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit, and Anderson Humane Ambassador Animals Lucy the Canadian goose, rabbits Jake and Elwood, Stanley the tortoise, and Blossom the mini horse.

At Gray Willows Farm with the raptors, the campers occasionally asked questions: “Can she talk?” “How old is he?” “Where did she come from?” Graham, a 9-year-old whose father is a bird watcher, was a ringer for all the questions the Wings and Talons volunteers asked the kids. Seven-year-old Emily quietly sketched each of the birds, surrounding the drawings with facts she’d learned about the raptors.

“I love being in an outdoor classroom like that,” said Cheryl Smith, the camp director and Community Engagement Manager with Anderson Humane. “The kids can focus better, and soak up everything better.” She added that Anderson Humane’s new partnership with Campton Township made a huge difference this year. Nearly all the camp activities took place on their grounds, and their staff taught several of the segments on nature, conservation, and animal care. “I can’t say enough about Campton Township and their team. They align so perfectly with our mission. They were amazing,” Cheryl said.

The campers had similar glowing words about camp. Eight-year-old Josh liked Stanley the tortoise best (Josh is into turtles). Nine-year-old Alton liked looking for toads. Six-year-old Evan loved holding the snakes. “They feel so cool,” he said, adding that he doesn’t find them at all scary. Some of the kids had such a good time during the week they attended that they begged their parents to sign them up for subsequent weeks. Attendance grew each week, from 20 the first week to 30 by the fourth.

“We heard from one grandfather who told us that even though his grandson is a quiet kid who rarely talks, he couldn’t stop talking about all that he was learning at camp,” Cheryl said. Likewise, Erica, mom of 12-year-old camper Victoria, said, “I was thrilled she came home energetic and excited about what she’d done and learned. She was fascinated that some animals have jobs, like the therapy and scent dogs.”

Nine-year-old Kate’s favorite thing about camp was meeting Lucy, the Canadian goose. In fact, so many of the campers enjoyed Lucy that she made a back-by-popular-demand second visit during the final week of camp. The campers threw her a pool party and fed her lettuce while Cheryl shared how geese are loyal and good teammates. Just as geese honk to encourage the lead bird to fly faster, Cheryl and her team encouraged the campers that their “honk” should also be positive and encouraging.

The practical lesson from Lucy was one of many taught throughout the four weeks of camp. The Wings and Talons volunteers taught the campers that raptors aren’t just cool, they also eat mosquitos and serve as helpful indicators if our environment is healthy. The Campton Township team taught the campers how to make seed bombs – a ball made of clay, dirt, water, and native plant seeds – and led the kids in reseeding a field with their freshly made bombs.

At the foundation of every activity was the Anderson Humane motto: Respect. Protect. Connect. The staff even came up with arm motions for each word and the campers started each morning repeating the three words with the motions. Clearly, the campers were listening. When asked what she learned at camp, 11-year-old Nadia said, “I learned to respect nature and animals.” As they wrapped up their presentation, one of the Wings and Talons volunteers asked the campers who they were going to tell about all the information they’d learned about raptors and caring for nature, several of the kids answered, “Everyone!” Mission accomplished.

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