Good poop-scooping technique, for example, is developed through the crowd-pleasing Poop Scoop Relay Race, which involves an ample supply of Snickers bars, Tootsie Rolls and bio bags. The trick to winning is not to let any stray bits (the Tootsie Rolls) escape. Sponge Puppy, an exercise on early socialization, uses plastic cups, water, a variety of food colors and animal sponge capsules. The food colors represent different experiences: baseball games; crowded sidewalks; visits to the vet; and living with cats, sirens, garage doors and so on. The children imagine what their hypothetical puppy might encounter in his life, and then make up a colorful liquid recipe that, once soaked up by the sponge, will result in a happy, well-adjusted adult dog.
Julie Haggerty’s 10-year-old daughter, Bridget Kraus, spent two weeks at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley’s Camp Muddy Paws last summer—and she was lucky to get in.
“It’s the most popular camp around,” Haggerty explains. “If you don’t sign up within two hours of when registration opens, you can’t get in. They take online registrations now, but a couple of years ago, you had to go there and stand in line. People got there at five in the morning.”
As one of the lucky students who secured a spot in the program, Bridget still raves about her experiences: the dog training; the grooming; the real-life surgical procedure she got to watch, even though she had to lean against a tiled wall when she became slightly dizzy. Months later, she wrote stories for school about Bullseye, a kitten named for his fondness for jumping onto shoulders or into arms from high places. Her time at camp made Bridget appreciate animals’ individual needs and personalities, adding a new level of understanding to her existing love for them.
“She handles animals much better since Camp Muddy Paws,” Haggerty says. “We have three cats at home, and I’ve been telling the kids for a long time not to just pick them up. At camp, Bridget really took that in for the first time. Now she lets the cats come to her.”
Bridget’s new understanding highlights a point humane educators often make: These lessons teach kids not only to watch for and recognize body language cues; they also instill respect and impulse control. Brushing a dog’s coat cultivates grooming skills, but also a sense of responsibility. Matted coats are uncomfortable and can lead to disease—and your pet’s health and comfort are yours to protect. The list of positive qualities fostered by interactions with animals goes on: patience, cooperation, gentleness, perseverance, a caring attitude, initiative.
The effect can be downright transformative. Just ask Carol Rathmann. She has spent 17 years building the Forget-Me- Not Farm at the Humane Society & SPCA of Sonoma County, Calif., into a haven for at-risk children and rescued animals. The Farm welcomes around 350 children a year, partnering with county agencies that care for children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect, or because their parents are incarcerated or in treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. Vulnerable and traumatized, these children have not participated in Scouts or Little League or afterschool programs. They’ve had few chances to learn humane values, or even basic life skills, like asking for what they want or working with others to solve a problem. In the peaceful setting of the Forget-Me-Not Farm, all that changes.
Rathmann, a registered vet tech with a graduate degree in psychology, says the children absorb lessons in many ways; the Farm’s volunteers are well aware that they serve as role models, for example. But the true teachers at the Farm are the animals and the garden.
Mother Nature dictates the list of chores. In the winter, the children are in the barn, grooming and caring for the animals. Or they dress in donated rain boots and ponchos and walk the llamas and the miniature donkey outside. Springtime means frantic planting, sowing the vegetable garden and the year’s corn maze. Summer is for bottle-feeding puppies and kittens and bathing hot animals. The children collect eggs from rescued hens and harvest zucchinis, sunflower seeds, tomatoes and strawberries. Come autumn, there are apples to pick and pumpkins to carve for Halloween.