RANCHO SANTA FE — Helen Woodward Animal Center might be best known for taking care of dogs and cats while they wait for their forever homes, but it also keeps a series of animal “ambassadors” for both children and adults to see and appreciate. Their Critter Camp is a program that lets kids interact and learn about these unique animals.
Neighboring the center’s main building is a play area for children, and by that is their Education Program building. And right behind that building is a pen where some alpacas and sheep share space, nibbling at bells of straw suspended from their pen’s ceiling. A couple of these alpacas are named Kuzco and Kronk, after characters from “The Emperor’s New Groove.”
These animals are just a few of the 30 different unique species Helen Woodward keeps for the educational programs; they also have chinchillas, goats, frogs, box turtles, rabbits and more. These animals have been privately donated, surrendered, or been obtained from outside rescue groups. After having run these programs for 40 years, the center has determined which specific animals — on both a species and individual basis — would be most comfortable with human interaction.
Education Manager Haylee Blake said that the Critter Camp is an educational endeavor. “It’s not school though, because it is camp, so it is still a lot of fun,” she said. “But we try and hit certain objectives each day, and we give the parents some questions ahead of time so that they can come and ask the kids those questions and hopefully get some good answers.”
At Critter Camp, children not only get to interact with these animals — under the supervision of both camp staff and high-schoolers earning college credits — but get to learn various topics, depending on the camp’s theme of the day. Some of these topics include specific animal diets, making adaptations to environments and living in individual habitats.
Children can also participate in games like tag, parachute games and something Blake called “mindful adventure.” Craft activities are available depending on age level, such as making a penguin out of a toilet paper roll, fake snow, and a snow globe.
Blake said that the most rewarding part of her job is the opportunity to see the children learn and grow. “So many come here maybe scared of certain animals, or unsure, maybe not thinking that they really want to interact with them at all, and then seeing that those kids have a newfound appreciation for them or (are) excited, and then we often see kids return time and time again.
While the core elements of each camp are the same, Blake said they do try to make the camps “We don’t get brand-new animals every camp, but the kids are so excited, either to see an animal they already met before, because they’re building a connection with that animal, or they just have so much fun here,” she said.
“I’m just so grateful that we offer this to the community, because I know that I would have really enjoyed this as a kid, and I definitely didn’t get these sort of experiences,” Blake said.
“Even if you don’t have an animal lover, sending kids here, they’re going to enjoy the experience and they might find that they do care for animals a lot more than they originally realized, and just that animals enrich the lives of all of us, so I think that it’s worth giving back to them,” she said.
The Critter Camp opens up whenever San Diego children are out of school. Recently, the center held its Winter Critter Camp, which lasted from Dec. 20 to Jan. 3, with some breaks in between. Parents can register their children for the camp online at animalcenter.org.
Alex Wehrung covers Rancho Santa Fe and theatre-related news in North County. He previously reported for The Daily Nexus in Santa Barbara, CA and the Escondido Times-Advocate in Escondido, CA.