Sow Your Wild Oats

By Lori Martin

Imagine having a week to do nothing but pursue a passion under the guidance of a fun, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable teacher. Many adults wish they could have experienced that when they were younger to help them decide on a direction in life. Yet, many kids today are exploring their passions now! Specialty camps are a great way to actively engage and develop skills in a favorite activity and explore new aspirations.

Over the last decade, the number of camps catering to kids’ specific interests has grown tremendously, due to both parent and camper demand. Today, there are camps for almost every interest area. Cub Creek Science Camp in Rolla, Mo., offers week-long specialty courses in a wide range of topics, including animal care and veterinary medicine.

What started years ago in a single room dedicated to a variety of small pet shop animals has now grown into earning Cub Creek the unique distinction of being the country’s only residential “animal c­amp.” While it offers many traditional camp activities—fishing, hiking, arts and crafts, a six-element ropes course, archery, and more—the camp built a zoo on the property that now houses more than 300 animals of 100 different species. Animal enclosures have been designed to allow campers to go inside and interact with the animals. Animals have become such a popular part of camp that the new dining hall is being built to surround a colony of Ring-tail lemurs, allowing viewers to watch these playful animals at every meal. The most popular program offered is called “Adopt an Animal.” This week-long activity allows campers to take on the responsibility of learning how to properly feed and clean up after the animal of their choice, as well as creating animal-enrichment activities.

Learning From Animals
Since animals don’t criticize or judge someone for saying or doing the wrong thing, they have a unique way of bringing kids together while teaching important life lessons. Just two of the many lessons learned at Cub Creek are responsibility and respect. While spending a week caring for an animal, campers learn to be responsible for its well-being and recognize the respect it takes to live harmoniously with an animal. One of the camp’s goals is to teach kids to transfer the kindness, patience, and connection they feel toward animals to their human relationships.

Plan Ahead
Despite the many benefits, adding animals to a summer camp is more complicated than it sounds. There are several regulating organizations that need to be considered, including the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the health department. Many cities and counties also regulate the type and number of animals that can be housed inside a regulated area. The USDA requires any camp that wishes to display mammals to apply for an annual license that can range from $30 to $750. Holding a USDA license also requires an unannounced annual inspection. Some animals, like personal pets, birds, and reptiles, however, are exempt from these regulations.

Before adding any animal to a summer program, camps should make appropriate arrangements:

  • Contact the appropriate authorities to determine if the animals are legal in your area or will require special licenses or permits.
  • Choose animals whose personalities will thrive with lots of attention and day-to-day camp commotion.
  • Consider leasing animals or create a plan for the animals’ care during the camp’s off-season.
  • Do research on the proper husbandry needs of each animal and be prepared to provide excellent housing, food, and care. Remember that you are setting an example of appropriate animal care to campers.
  • Create an appropriate space that will allow interaction between campers and animals without allowing the animal(s) to get loose or run away.
  • Identify a veterinarian with experience treating the type of animals you are considering. He or she should also be able to provide onsite care, if needed.
  • Create a veterinary-care plan for each animal that includes dates and times for needed vaccinations, worming, and grooming (e.g., nail clipping, hoof trimming, etc).
  • Assign a primary caregiver for the animals. This person should be skilled at noticing changes in behavior or appetite that might signal stress, injury, or illness.
  • Establish animal policies and guidelines in advance. These include—but are not limited to—creating a plan for accommodating sick or stressed animals, handling possible animal bites, and setting the camp’s standard for animal contact in relation to all campers, staff members, and guests.
  • Be sure the camper health form includes specific questions about pet allergies, reactions, and treatments. If a camp has not housed animals in the past, parents of returning campers may not understand the importance of providing this information.

Where To Begin
Here is a list of some animals that work well with kids:

  • Dogs. Try to obtain dogs that are well-trained and also have a great personality.
  • Small animals: guinea pigs, rabbits (larger breeds), and hedgehogs
  • Bottle baby goats, sheep, calves. It is important that bottle babies are incorporated into the camp program when they’re used to the bottle and a couple weeks old.
  • Silkie chickens
  • Reptiles: snakes, lizards, turtles, and tortoises. If incorporating reptiles, adult ball pythons would be a good start for snakes; bearded dragons and Uromastyx are proper starting lizards; and for turtles and tortoises, try box turtles or Russian tortoises.

Add A Specialty Program
Animals are only one of the specialty programs offered at Cub Creek Science Camp. Based on camper interest, programs such as culinary science, crime science, and paramedics have been added. Adding a specialty program is simple:

  • Identify a good-sized interest group
  • Locate a great instructor with a shared love of the subject
  • Create a lesson plan
  • Determine an appropriate activity location
  • Purchase needed supplies
  • Write the activity into the schedule.

Specialty programs can be offered alongside traditional camp activities and don’t always require additional costs. At Cub Creek Science Camp, campers know that the administration is always looking for new activity ideas. If a group with sufficient numbers shares an idea for a new activity, that activity will be seriously considered for the following week. If the activity is offered, the suggesting group will be given the first opportunity to sign up for it, and if the activity proves extremely popular, it is written into the following summer’s list of activity choices. So let the imagination run wild! Get campers involved! Offer specialized activities that you have a passion for and see if the addition of a specialty program doesn’t boost camper enrollment!

Lori Martin is the founder, owner, and director of Cub Creek Science Camp in Rolla, Mo. She has a passion for inspiring others to pursue their dreams and to seek God. To learn more, visit