Where Empathy, Animals and Education Intersect
By Elizabeth Nelson
“These kids have drunk the koolaid,” said Lizzy Brown, Humane Educator at Berkshire Humane Society (BHS) in Pittsfield. “They already love animals. They’re interested. They come to camp ready to learn and explore. It’s amazing.”
Over spring break, 10 children from Berkshire County spent their time away from school with Lizzy in the brightly lit classroom at the shelter. In addition to daily crafts, the campers learned about local wildlife, canine agility training, caring for baby goats, chicken keeping, and micro-chipping cats, among other things. Lizzy designs each curriculum fresh from session to session, carefully curating the activities for age and maturity level of the students.
“My goal as a humane educator is to teach children about empathy, compassion, and mindfulness using animal welfare and education,” said Lizzy.
School Break Camp Humane is the spring session of Camp Humane, BHS’s summer-long signature education program designed to give kids hands-on experience with animals, both wild and domestic. Tuition covers all activities, admission and transportation for local field trips, art supplies, and a Camp Humane t-shirt that the kids color themselves.
Along with a classroom pet – these campers enjoyed the company of Macey, a black rabbit – Lizzy organizes daily lessons with animal experts. This group was visited by a local farmer who brought in a baby goat. A woman who keeps chickens introduced one of her prized hens. BHS staff taught the campers how to safely and kindly interact with resident dogs and cats, and at the start of each day, the campers took turns reading out loud to the shelter animals.
“Reading to the kittens was my favorite part of camp,” shared a camper named Holly.
Midway through the week, the campers had a lot to share about their experience thus far.
“I was really surprised how soft the chicken was,” said Riley. The other kids chime in with facts they have learned. Wombats poop squares. Macey has a dewlap, which is a storage of fat on female rabbits. Rabbits can’t throw up on their own. People have spleens.
Regarding dog body language, Viggo shared, “Dogs are stressed when their ears go back, and they yawn and lick their lips.”
“Every animal we meet, every craft we dream up, every game we play, and lesson we learn,” said Lizzy, “revolves around the idea of honoring animals. We draw connections between them and humans, and we discuss our responsibilities and the repercussions when they are neglected.”
“Animals can sense your mood,” added Viggo. “So they will be in the mood you are in.”
“If you like animals,” shared Graham, “[camp]is good because you get to play with cats, dogs, bunnies, and other animals.”
“You also learn skills,” added Ava. “You learn how to take care of animals and how to train them.”
“What have you guys learned about empathy, about bad thoughts versus good thoughts?” Lizzy asked the group one afternoon.
The campers think, then one boy says, “bad thoughts about yourself make you weaker.”
This particular session began with a field trip to Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary, a scenic plot of land boasting woods, fields, and wetlands along the edge of the Housatonic River. Lead by a BHS staff member, the campers explored trails looking for signs of wildlife. They were rewarded with animal tracks and scat, a giant snapping turtle, a tangle of mating snakes, and gelatinous sacks of salamander eggs near the water’s edge.
“Coyote poop has fur,” said Viggo, commenting on what he learned that day.
One of the favorite activities among the campers was canine agility training. Throughout the week, the campers met with Lisa Corbett, BHS’s lead instructor of Family Dog School. Over the course of three classes, Lisa taught the campers how to use treats and positive reinforcement to teach Keaton – one of the more active shelter dogs – how to jump over a pole, run through a tunnel, sit on top of a platform, and walk along a narrow set of end-to-end planks. Campers took turns giving Keaton a command and rewarding him with a treat. By the end of the third class, Keaton had learned the commands and corresponding skills, even showing off by walking along the planks without instruction. At one point, having successfully leapt, tunneled, and landed on the platform, the campers cheered and clapped, sending Keaton into an exhilarated run around the room. Seeing an animal respond to their positive attention gave the campers a boost of confidence. Their faces were as bright as Keaton’s happy dash around the obedience room.
“Dog training was my favorite part,” shared Remi. The rest of the group concurred.
“I know these children will make a difference in our world when they grow up,” said Lizzy. “I have faith in their love of animals – that will show them the way!”
Learn more about Camp Humane at www.berkshirehumane.org/childrens-activities-at-bhs/camp-humane/