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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Camp Keeper

We're in the quiet before the storm right now.  The last of the field trip kids have rolled off into the sunset on their cheese-buses.  We've got some summer tourists starting to appear, like the first few migratory birds that let you know the season is about to change.  The mornings are silent (at least as silent as a zoo ever is) and child-free... for another week or so.

Then camp begins.

Almost every zoo I've ever worked at has offered camp in one form or another.  They've ranged from daycare programs for kids so young that they can hardly walk without falling over to teenage volunteer programs that work alongside zoo staff.  At most facilities, campers are nominally the responsibility of the education department.  That doesn't matter too much, as the responsibility inevitably spills over to encompass the entire staff.  Managing a zoo-full of kids is a big job.

What the children do in camp varies mostly by age.  For very young kids, it typically doesn't differ much from other day cares.  There are arts and crafts, games, sing-a-longs, and, of course, naps and snacks (side note: I've decided that no longer having designated nap and snack periods throughout the day is the worst part of adulting).  There tends to be an animal twist to most of these activities, as well as walks around the zoo, and maybe some special feedings or demonstrations, as well as meetings with animal ambassadors.

The older the campers, typically the more "zoo-ish" the camp.  At our zoo, for example, campers may help keepers make enrichment items (which they then get to see in use), do little projects around zoo grounds, and tour behind the scenes (under careful keeper supervision).  Some of the oldest campers even have the option of enrolling in a camp where they can work alongside the keepers in caring for some of the zoo animals, sort of like a "So-You-Wanna-Be-A-Zookeeper?" type deal.

Not too surprisingly, I was in zoo camp as a kid.  More surprisingly, I didn't like it too, too much.  Camp tends to mean group activities, which tend to be held to the lowest-common-denominator.  Kids who are too young in the group (or just kind of immature) can hold back the group, and keep the rest from enjoying the full scope of activities.  The difference was that I wanted to be a zookeeper when I grew up.  Most of the others were there as a substitute to daycare.  Camp leaders have a tendency to manage kids collectively, so kids acting up can have negative consequences for everyone (maybe I'm just bitter - we had a few camp clowns in my zoo camp as a kid, which resulted in the loss of a few activities).

Still, I can't deny that many of our campers seem to love it.  Some of our past campers have even gone on to become docents or involved in other capacities.  For many camp participants (yes, me too), camp provides a first introduction to the world of the zoo.  For some of them, it might be the first step towards falling in love.

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