With summertime right around the corner and summer plans firming up, we knew Noozhawk’s Camp Guide wouldn’t be complete until we spoke to one of the wildest summer programs around: Zoo Camp at the Santa Barbara Zoo!

Noozhawk had the opportunity to talk to Hannah Kistner, the zoo’s education associate, to learn more about what the zoo is offering this summer.

Santa Barbara Zoo

Question: What is the name of your summer camp and what is its mission?

Answer: We have six different summer camps available at the zoo. We have our traditional Zoo Camp that we’ve been running for decades — which people love — and last year we added a few additional specialty camps.

For the specialty week-long camps, we have Backyard Biologist, Jr. Zookeeper, Jr. Veterinarian, Pet Ready? and Scales & Tails. They all have a different perspectives on conservation biology, but our mission for all of our camps is to have fun and to promote a sustainable and conservation-orientated perspective.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit more about each of your summer camps?

A: Our Traditional Zoo Camp is a mix of animal encounters, games, crafts and activities all around the zoo. This camp offers a lot of energy, lots of singing and lots of fun.

In our Jr. Veterinarian Camp, our goal is to really help kids feel like they are a part of our zoo vet team for the week. They will learn about what our zoo vets do on a day-to-day basis and also why they choose to become veterinarians.

Pet Ready? is a camp about animal husbandry. It teaches campers how to take care of the domestic species that most people have as pets, so there’s a heavy focus on our barnyard area and reptiles, amphibians and birds.

Similar but a little different, is our Jr. Zookeeper Camp, which has the same practices as far as animal husbandry, but it is for our exotic collection.

Backyard Biologist incorporates more hands-on field biology practices. It’s activity-oriented so kids can develop the skills they need to be observers and stewards of nature. In this program, kids are trained to be the data collectors or the “boots on the ground” for the Citizen Science Programs. The Citizen Science Program is a program where anyone can be trained to collect scientific data that is then re-directed to professional scientists who are usually grad students or post-doc.

Campers who take part in the Jr. Zookeeper or Pet Ready? camp will learn the basics of animal husbandry by taking part in the care, feeding and enrichment of both exotic and domestic animal species.
Campers who take part in the Jr. Zookeeper or Pet Ready? camp will learn the basics of animal husbandry by taking part in the care, feeding and enrichment of both exotic and domestic animal species. (Santa Barbara Zoo photo)

Scales & Tails is an in-depth study of reptiles and amphibians. Campers will learn all about the life history of reptiles and amphibians. They then get to create a terrarium exhibit that will be displayed in our actual reptile and amphibian house on-site.

Q: What is the age range for children to take part in your camps?

A: Traditional Camp has the biggest age range, which is ages 3 to 8. Jr. Vet, Backyard Biologist and Pet Ready? are all ages 6 to 12. Jr. Zookeeper is ages 9 to 12 and Scales & Tales is ages 8 to 12.

Q: Describe the activities involved in your camps.

A: For traditional Zoo Camp, campers get to feed giraffes, meet some of our animal ambassadors and animal keepers, make crafts, and play lots of games outside.

Campers who attend our Jr. Veterinarian Camp will participate in clinics from our vets on bandaging, pet/animal CPR, learning how to read X-rays, taking case files of patients, interpreting diagnostics tests and doing dissections.

In Backyard Biologists, the kids get to work closely with our conservation biologists and do dissections, learn plant and animal identifications, create and use field biologist tools, and collect data for Citizen Science Programs.

Pet Ready? and Jr. Zookeeper cover a lot of training, learning and practicing on how to train animals, what their diet needs are, the cleaning or maintenance that their area needs, and health care. Jr. Zookeeper, Pet Ready? and Scales & Tales, all work directly with the animal keepers.

Jr. Zookeeper is a little different from Pet Ready, but in the same context where humans are caring for exotic animals and looking at diet, health care, grooming, maintenance and enrichment.

Scales & Tails has a lot of animal encounters and group investigation into the life history of the animals they are studying. Studying the animals’ natural habitats is very important because they will be creating their own exhibit and need to make sure it’s well suited for the animal that is placed within it.

Q: What goals do you have for youths participating in your camps?

A: We really hope that kids come away with a renewed or new dream of helping save animals and living a sustainable lifestyle that is best for people and nature.

Rather than picking out a specific favorite animal and focusing completely on it, we want them to learn how that animal is part of intricate food web and ecosystem, and these natural spaces provide natural resources for people that we have to tend and take care of.

We want them to come away with a refreshed ecological perspective while having tons of fun!

Q: When were your camps started?

A: The Santa Barbara Zoo first started in 1963, but the Zoo Camp began in 1975. Our mission is to preserve, conserve and enhance the natural world and its living treasures through education, research and recreation.

Q: What can parents expect their children to gain from participating in Zoo Camp?

A: Our main goal is for campers to have fun! Parents can expect campers to have a great time and learn a lot about animals. Kids will get to interact, make friends, play games and meet professionals in the zoological field. They’ll come away with a greater knowledge of how zoos work, the people who work in zoos and how animals are taken care of.

Q: What is the best part about your camps in your opinion?

A: Kids get to be free! They are cared for and watched because safety is our first priority. Kids really get to go outside of their daily routine and spend time with animals. The experience is always really renewing and educational.

Q: Describe what makes your summer camp unique and worthwhile.

A: Zoo Camp is 100 percent conservation and education driven. There is no other camp in this area that you get to spend your morning putting out breakfast for elephants in their yard, meeting someone who works with a whole colony of penguins every day, and then feed giraffes, and come home and share all those stories during dinner.

It’s really a unique experience that kids not only interact with the animals, but also with the people who are so dedicated to caring for the animals, and to just be in such a safe, beautiful, educational environment for a week.

Q: Is there a favorite activity for youths who partake in Zoo Camp?

A: One of the kids’ favorites activity happens in our Backyard Biologist camp. It’s a little different structure from our other specialty camps because they actually get to spend the night at the zoo and experience all the after-hours happenings.

They’ll have dinner and then go and explore all the nocturnal animal exhibits and see a whole different set of behaviors from animals. For example, our Fennec foxes are from the Sahara, where it’s too hot to be active during the day, but at night, they are bouncing off the walls. During that time, we allow the kids to give them snacks and watch their natural foraging habits.

Our mornings are also special. The natural diversity of a zoo, in terms of the plants and animal life, attracts a lot of other native wildlife. For example, we have an incredible birding of more than 50 species of native birds at the zoo. Campers get to wake up hearing the ocean, seeing the bird refuge and listening to all zoo animals wake up.

They sleep right next to the lion exhibit, so in the mornings you will hear Chadwick waking up and roaring. There’s really nothing like having a lion’s roar be your alarm clock. It’s a really neat experience for the kids.

Q: In what ways are your camps educational?

A: Our educational department philosophy is inquiry-based and experiential, so everything we do at the zoo, as far as our educational programs go, is hands-on. We really want kids to explore nature for themselves and believe that nature really is the best teacher.

Our educators, which we call facilitators, are really just guides to help kids exploring nature on their own schedule and terms, and at their own level.

Q: What else should parents know when deciding whether to send their children to Zoo Camp?

A: Even though our camps have been around for a long time, we are still very flexible and always learn something new each summer. We also are an inclusion program for special needs so parents can send their kids regardless of ability, and we’ll make sure they have an amazing summer camp week.

We encourage all parents to talk and ask us questions like any fears about safety. Our camper educator ratio is about 1-to-12, but in every group we also have multiple teen volunteers, so there’s about one leader for every two or three kids.

In Backyard Biologist camp, campers will be trained how to be field biologists and get to spend a special one-night sleepover next to the lion exhibit at the zoo.
In Backyard Biologist camp, campers will be trained how to be field biologists and get to spend a special one-night sleepover next to the lion exhibit at the zoo. (Santa Barbara Zoo photo)

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