Thousands of youngsters ages 6 to 17 will attend day camps this summer at hundreds of animal shelters across the country. The urge to nurture animals starts early — especially with pets becoming key parts of families — giving rise to the popularity of programs that offer budding veterinarians and other young animal lovers a way to help dogs and cats and learn the responsibilities of owning pets.
"This is absolutely one of the fastest growing programs at the shelter," said Christen Benson, executive director of the Humane Society of Sarasota County, about 50 miles south of Tampa, Florida.
But, she said, the first question from parents often is: "What are they going to do, clean the kennels?"
"These camps aren't about getting free volunteers in to scrub cages," said Michelle Ramos, director of education for the Arizona Animal Welfare League & SPCA in Phoenix.
They are designed to introduce children to animals and show them how the creatures fit into their world, Ramos said. Campers learn to feed, exercise, wash, train and care for dogs and cats. In some camps, older youths can watch a surgery, help with minor stitches and monitor an animal patient to test out careers in the field.
Caroline Golon of Columbus, Ohio, is building a national database of camps on crayonsandcollars.com, her national blog for pets and kids. So far, she's found over 250 shelters with camp offerings.
"Many parents don't know it's an option for their animal-loving kids, and some of the shelters have truly incredible programs," Golon said.
Sisters Taryn and Kayla Alessandrino, 23 and 26, respectively, went to camp in Phoenix over a decade ago when the programs were just getting started. Taryn Alessandrino has since gotten her veterinary technician license and returns to the shelter each summer to help with classes. Kayla Alessandrino is in her last year of veterinary school in Scotland, and her sister awaits the day they can set up a practice.
"I thought I wanted to be a vet, too," Taryn Alessandrino said. "One day, we got to go in where they were doing spay and neuter surgeries, and I instantly realized that was not something I could do."
She enjoys taking temperatures, measuring heart rates or giving shots, so she became a vet tech.
"Since I was able to walk, I wanted to be around animals. They are great, so calming and can cheer you up if you are having a bad day. They are therapeutic," said Alessandrino, who has five cats, three dogs, a leopard gecko and a bearded dragon at home.
At the Arizona Animal Welfare League & SPCA, campers get to meet exotic animals at the shelter's sanctuary. Guapo, a 5-foot iguana, is the most popular, Ramos said.
Some older participants can watch animal surgeries and even help in some minor procedures.
More than 700 kids went through the Phoenix camps last summer, and more are expected this year. Most camps last five days, and prices range from $125 for half-days to $325 for full days.
In Florida, the Humane Society of Sarasota County launched its camp three years ago to give children ages 7 to 12 a chance to bond with animals, play animal-themed games, make animal-themed crafts and hear from speakers.
When camps start, about half the kids have pets at home, said Benson of the shelter. When it's over, about two-thirds of the participants own animals, because their families have adopted furry friends.