Teaching Kindness and Compassion at Animal Shelters

By on September 21, 2012

Fourteen year old Alexis Cervantes, a participant at the Arizona Animal Welfare League’s (AAWL) Camp Vet, calls the new summer program a blast. “I love it here,” says the future veterinarian. “I like learning about animals and how to care for them.”

Shelters across the US including many in Florida, provide humane education that teach children about compassion, kindness, animal care and bite prevention. Summer camp may be one component of a shelter’s overall education package, but it’s a very popular one.

According to Michelle Myers-Ramos, director of education for the Arizona Animal Welfare League, “We weren’t sure what to expect with Camp Vet but it sold out right away. We added a third session to meet the demand. I expect we’ll expand it next year.”

Camp Vet at the AAWL and other shelters like the San Francisco SPCA is designed for young teens interested in veterinary medicine or careers in the animal field. Ramos says teens at Camp Vet observe surgeries at the clinic, mostly spay/neuter, dissect organs, and learn anatomy. Local veterinarians lecture about their rewarding jobs and shelter staff demonstrate first aid on stuffed animals. Eager children show off their skills with actual stethoscopes on the pseudo patients. Thirteen year old Anne Murray says, “The camp teaches me about diseases and how to help sick animals.” Murray, who comes from a multi-pet household, hopes to become a veterinary technician.

Younger children attend AAWL’s Camp Ruffin It. Volunteers and employees teach children about responsible pet care, shelter operations, and safety around animals. Popular sessions include bathing dogs, grooming cats and learning dog tricks. Eight year old Bella Thayer says, “The camp is fun. I liked watching the surgery.” Bella has a dog at home named Sugar that she adores.

Staff members talk to children about wildlife especially animals native to Arizona such as the rattlesnake, bobcat, coyote, bighorn sheep and javelina and their habitats. A volunteer from the Phoenix Zoo visits with slides and opens up an informative discussion for the curious campers.

Summer camp is so popular at the AAWL that nine year old Tiffany Taylor returned for her second time. “I love it here. Besides playing with the shelter pets, we make toys for them. We learn how to handle animals. It’s great.” Tiffany’s mom, Isabella, was so impressed by the camp that she recently became a shelter volunteer.

No group keeps tabs on how many of the nation’s 5,000 animal shelters offer humane education or summer camp. An internet search revealed a number of shelters in Florida with inspiring programs. The Jacksonville Humane Society makes presentations about responsible pet care to interested schools and adult groups says Michelle Gillam, Senior Public Relations and Special Events Manager. Jacksonville hosts a popular teen dog walking club. “Teens ages 13-15 walk shelter dogs and provide them companionship,” says Gillam. “It’s a wonderful way to socialize our dogs.” The program breaks over the steamy Florida summers.

For younger children Jacksonville has the Waggon Trail Kids Club that meets monthly. Staff and volunteers teach children to safely interact with animals, how they can help unwanted animals and health and training tips for pets. At the summer Camp Kindness children are paired with a shelter animal, usually a dog, which they learn how to care for. The goal is to help the animal find a responsible home. “They socialize the pet, give baths, and teach the animal, if it’s a dog, new commands,” says Gillam. A family returned and adopted the cat their child had worked with one year.

The Halifax Humane Society in Daytona Beach approaches summer camps differently. According to Kate Thomas, humane education director, “We visit summer camps and make presentations.” Accompanied by a shelter dog, Thomas talks to children about responsible pet care, spay/neuter, bite prevention and adoptions. Camp counselors Thomas says are receptive to the shelter visitation program.

Besides summer camp, dog walking and kids clubs, shelters offer a variety of educational programs. Birthday parties are an example of a fun but educational activity. Children hold their birthday party at the animal shelter. Guests bring gifts for the shelter animals instead of themselves. Children and their friends and family enjoy birthday cake at the shelter instead of at home. Children’s reading programs are also available at shelters. There is no end to shelter’s creativity to spread kindness and compassion through enjoyable but effective methods of humane education.

Examples of Florida shelters with humane education and/or summer camps are the Orlando Humane Society, Tampa Bay SPCA, SPCA Suncoast, Humane Society of Pinellas, and the Humane Society of Broward County.

Programs that teach kindness and respect for animals almost always lead to a kinder gentler society. Stacey Zeitlin, president of the Association of Professional Humane Educators, and director of humane education at the San Diego Humane Society, says “There’s a well-studied link between how people treat animals and how they treat each other. It’s these camp experiences which may be the key to creating a more caring community.”

Shelter managers would like to expand humane education but the slumping economy forced some like the Humane Society of the Treasure Coast in Stewart, FL to cut back on theirs. As the economy slowly improves shelter donations probably will too. Then, humane education programs can reach more children and ultimately cut down on animal cruelty. That’s a goal everyone wants to achieve.

In the meantime, summer camps and humane education continue across the nation at shelters like the AAWL, Jacksonville Humane Society, SPCA of Westchester, and the San Francisco SPCA. They are a simple but valuable tool to spread compassion, kindness, empathy and understanding not just towards animals but each other.


If humane education interests you, volunteer your time or make a donation to your local shelter. Contact your shelter to learn more about their program. If your shelter doesn’t offer humane education, help start one. To find a shelter near you, contact www.petfinder.com. For assistance organizing a humane education program, contact the Association of Professional Humane Educators at www.aphe.org


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