I was on a walk with my bulldog puppy, Enzo, who had just flopped on his stomach because I wouldn’t let him drink out of a swamp. It reminded me that most animals, like children, always have felt comfortable being themselves around me. Even if that means giving me attitude.
Empathy for animals runs deep somewhere in my makeup. People constantly apologize for their dogs’ enthusiasm around me, or remark that shy animals often feel comfortable in my presence. When I was a child, I often brought home injured animals to be helped; a vole that had expired of heat exhaustion on the sidewalk; a mouse that had nothing wrong with it at all, but that we wanted to feed as a pet for a few days. That may have been misguided, but it’s not unusual for kids to want to help or to get closer to the animals around them to see how they live.
I know I’m not the only one who has had to learn how to care for animals and who deeply enjoys their company. A natural affinity with animals since childhood is what led me to become a trained animal whisperer and animal Reiki specialist in addition to being a journalist. It’s often hard to tell where a love of animals will take a child, but these days there are some amazing programs out there to test the waters, whether a kid is interested in learning the basics of animal encounters, adopting a new family member, or becoming a veterinarian, animal trainer, or therapist.
Today, organized animal rescues do more of the work humans used to take on and are raising awareness of the needs of animals. (Pretty sure that mouse didn’t need to be kept in a bucket and fed hotdogs for three days. Oops.) There are some things you should know before visiting a conservancy or volunteering. Kids are sometimes welcome at rescue organizations, sometimes not, and there are a variety of ways to help out you might not know about. The rules of children’s involvement vary widely, mostly for the safety of the animals. I rounded up some kid-friendly animal programs in Washtenaw County to find out what’s out there right now, and how you can get your kids involved for the benefit of everyone.
Huron Valley Humane Society
The Huron Valley Humane Society (hshv.org) has an enormous list of kids programs these days. From Tiny Lions Cafe “mewvie nights” and hatha yoga classes where kids can stretch alongside cats, to the yearly Munster Mash Bash at Halloween with trick-or-treating around the shelter on Cherry Hill Road in northeast Ann Arbor, there really is something for everyone. This year they are sponsoring the inaugural Humane Youth Award (www.hshv.org/hya), in which anyone can nominate a young person ages 12–17 who made a positive impact on the lives of animals.
Wendy Welch, Director of Communications at the Humane Society of Huron Valley (HSHV), told us that the shelter’s popular youth volunteer program “sells out” within minutes of being posted. The Junior Volunteers learn about animal welfare and get hands-on experience caring for homeless animals over six two-hour sessions. Kids must be age 12 by the time of online enrollment. There is a fee to attend, with scholarships available.
There are programs for much younger kids as well. I attended the HSHV Little Paws Storytime, which takes place monthly on a Thursday from 10:30–11:30 a.m. at the shelter building in one of their classrooms. The preschoolers entered for an early kinetic sand playtime with barnyard animal figures. Then they sat down for story time. Group leader Erin started with a song to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” After the story book, she brought out her riddle board and placed an image of a dog on the board.
“Where do dogs live?” she asked the kids. “In a tree? In a hole?”
“In a house!” a little boy shouted.
“Right. Where does a dog sleep?” she continued.
“In a crate!”
She paused. “But what do you put in a crate?”
The other volunteers Shelley and Shanti chuckled while cleaning up the play table. “I used to volunteer with puppies and kittens,” Shanti whispered to me, “and now I’m volunteering with little humans.”
“Do dogs go to the doctor?” Erin continued.
“No, they go to the vet!”
The group of children moved on to the shelter area to visit the cats and kittens. Abby Wilfong, who runs the retail shop at the shelter, stopped to explain to me how children are involved in the adoption process when they come here to adopt a pet. “We try to involve children, because it’s a family decision,” she said.
“The goal is to have everything here newly adopted animals need to thrive in their new home,” she said. Leashes, bowls, toys, all at what Wilfong said are competitive prices, so new pet parents can get everything in one place to make a new pet comfortable right away. “The proceeds go back to animals in our care,” she said.
Wilfong said the goal is to support animals staying in their new home. If a family comes through the Humane Society shelter, they can get a 3-month pass so there is no pressure to go home with an animal before they know it’s the right fit. At several points HSHV works with families to determine if the adoption is a good match, and for those that already have pets at home, they host pet-to-pet supervised introductions to make sure all animals will get along.
At the front desk, an adoption specialist can provide information about an animal that goes beyond their age and personality listed on their enclosure nametag. Then families can visit the store and an adoption counselor to learn about the specific needs of the animal they’re interested in. Finally, it’s back to the front desk to sign a contract. The process can take less than an hour in some cases, and costs vary but are listed on enclosure cards so there are no surprises.
Alison Balow, the adoption manager, told me, “You can feel free to come in and browse. If you have an animal you’re interested in, we encourage you to spend time with them, with all family members. Kids are an integral part of the adoption process.”
And, according to Balow, if you’re looking to adopt a dog, the family can come in and walk a dog to get to know him or her.
Henry, an 11-month-old docile white pitbull with a brown ear, was greeting the children when I got back to the classroom for the end of Storytime. Class leader Erin told me the dogs can repeat month to month if they’re friendly with little kids and haven’t been adopted, but often interacting with the kids in the class is enough to get them adopted out. I’m sure Henry will have found his forever home by the time you’re reading this. I hope so. The Storytime was fun for the littlest kids, and a great way to introduce them to animals around the shelter. It got me thinking. How do sanctuaries and rescues set rules so even the littlest kids can participate without bothering the animals?
Etiquette For Animal Conservancies
Dorothy, the woman who runs SASHA Farms, which stands for sanctuary and safe haven for animals, west of Ann Arbor, told us that sometimes parents want their older kids to volunteer at a rescue as a form of free summer daycare. She said, for this reason, they don’t have a lot of kids’ programs, and require parents to sign a permission form for kids 16–18 to volunteer. “It’s important for kids to remember that these animals are often rescued from abusive or neglectful situations,” she said. However, in the case of SASHA Farms, kids are allowed to raise money for an animal with their school class and then visit. It’s a great learning opportunity for kids wanting to understand an animal’s daily needs and how much it costs to help take care of them. Like most sanctuaries, there are also opportunities to donate and sponsor a specific animal. For more information, visit www.sashafarm.org.
Howell Nature Center
Sometimes, nature programs from around Washtenaw County come to Ann Arbor to introduce kids to programs through street festivals. I met Stephanie Bussema, of the Howell Nature Center northwest of Ann Arbor (www.howellnaturecenter.org), outside the Y.M.C.A. at a street festival in early June. Located in Livingston County on 230 acres, her center has trails, cabins, an animal education zoo, and great outdoor ed camps and field trip opportunities for kids.
Tabling at the Y, Bussema’s job that day included informing the public about the laws in place to protect animals—ones you might not expect. As she was introducing kids to the rescue birds—an owl, a kestrel, and a turkey vulture named Igor—Bussema told me that laws prohibit collecting eagle feathers, as well as almost every bird’s feathers, in North America.
“In 1918,” Bussema said, “they put in place this law called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in North America. Some birds were heading for extinction because people were killing them to use their feathers in their clothing and jewelry.”
The turkey vulture behind Bussema turned to look at me. As I pointed my camera at him, he looked away. “Oh, he does that,” Bussema laughed. “As soon as you go to take his picture he fluffs his feathers and won’t look at you.”
She continued, “They passed this law that protects any migratory bird, which is almost all of them in North America. You can’t have any part of any bird, even egg shells… That is still in force today. Having a feather from most of the birds who appear in North America is illegal.”
Lisa, a woman visiting the booth the same time as me, asked if the rules applied to her as an Ojibwe tribal member, because she is exempt from the rules banning owning eagle feathers.
“You still need a permit,” Bussema explained, and laid out a complex process. Even if the feather falls in your yard? Yes, because there is no way to verify how you collected a feather. This is a tough one for me, because birds drop exquisite rare feathers in my yard all the time. Do with it what you will, but at the very least, it’s worth remembering that children shouldn’t chase birds for feathers or ever harm an animal for a souvenir.
The Howell Nature Center is a bit of a hike outside Ann Arbor, but it’s well worth an afternoon trip, including hiking trails, camps, a small water park and treehouse, and more. Visit them at 1005 Triangle Lake Rd, Howell, MI 48843, or online at howellnaturecenter.org.
The Creature Conservancy
The Creature Conservancy south of Ann Arbor (www.thecreatureconservancy.org) takes care of unique animals including an alligator, a bald eagle, sloths, porcupines, and even a panther. It’s a fantastic weekend visit or field trip for kids and has indoor and outdoor exhibits for rain or shine. They also run a Zoo Camp for longer stays for grades first through third. This is probably the easiest conservancy to drop in on. You can also enquire about volunteer, intern, and Teen Zoo Crew opportunities by emailing email@example.com. Visit their website for scheduling information and programs that vary over time at thecreatureconservancy.org.
Skills That Last a Lifetime
The Reptile Zoo that was so popular several years ago for kids’ field trips, I’m sorry to say, has closed due to lack of funding, and that’s something worth mentioning as well. Many of these rescues—the rabbit rescue (www.rabbitsanctuary.org), and the bird rescue (www.birdcenterwashtenaw.org/new)—operate on shoestring budgets and could use all the support they can get. Most rescues and conservancies will allow you to donate to their operations, and a class fundraiser could be a fun way to get kids involved in learning about what animals need to live a healthy life from food to shelter to socialization.
One of the coolest things about getting kids around animals is that they can learn all kinds of skills about how to tailor their interactions with animals to the situation. You don’t reach out your hand to a bull in a pen. You should approach any cat carefully to see if it’s open to being petted. Dogs don’t like direct eye contact if they are feeling threatened. These skills, and the bonds formed between animals and kids, can last a lifetime.
I had a guinea pig as a child named Peanut who lived such a long and healthy life her fur started to turn gray. I used to clean her cage in the front yard on the weekends while she ate grass. One day, a neighbor’s terrier rushed into the yard, to my dismay. I hurried over to protect Peanut, only to find the dog licking her straight up her snout. She loved him right back. She wasn’t afraid at all. She sniffed him and stood right by him until his owner took him away. That might fall under the heading of oops on proper safe animal interactions, but that dog looked for my guinea pig in the yard for years on his daily walk after that first meeting, and Peanut looked for the terrier, too. I feel the same way about a lot of the animals I’ve met, not to mention the cool kids who love them. Have fun out there, and send us your photos of cool animal sanctuary visits at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura K. Cowan is a green tech and wellness journalist living in Ann Arbor. She is the co-founder and executive editor of Cronicle Press Tech News and a contributing writer and columnist for The Ann Arbor Observer and Crazy Wisdom Communty Journal. You can contact her at email@example.com.