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Campers snake their way though educational games.

Kids slither up with rescued snakes

Ten Vancouver kids were the only ones to spend spring break learning about homeless garter snakes at what has become…

By Chantal Strand , in Environment Feature story , on April 1, 2015

Campers snake their way though educational games.
Campers snake their way though educational games.

Ten Vancouver kids were the only ones to spend spring break learning about homeless garter snakes at what has become a wildly popular camp run by the Wildlife Rescue Association of British Columbia.

The charity organization, near Burnaby Lake, hosted a sold-out, wait-listed two weeks of camps for kids aged six to 12. It is part of a growing trend in which parents are choosing nature over technology.

“It’s one of a kind,” said Marcy Potter, one of the members of the board of directors at the Wildlife Rehabilitators Network of British Columbia. “There’s not many programs out there that do that.”

Wildlife rehabilitation operations

There are about a dozen rescue and rehabilitation centres throughout the province, but many do not have the resources to offer full-time camps for kids.

Kids search for snakes.
Kids search for snakes.

In the U.S., wildlife rescue camps are more common, with cities like Ballwin, Mo., Medford, N.J., and Huston, Texas offering programs.

Locally, Victoria’s Wild ARC rehabilitation facility, a branch of the B.C. SPCA, offers a two-hour field trip there for SPCA campers in the summer.

Despite limited access to the Wild ARC facility, workshops and camps have also been full in past years.

Wild ARC staff said that rehabilitation-themed camps are likely so popular due to their exclusivity, as for safety reasons, many care facilities are not accessible to the public.

B.C. Wildlife Park, located in Kamloops, has hosted spring break kids camps for about two decades, with numbers of registered campers expanding yearly.

Staff said that this past year, 176 kids signed up.

Manager of education David Edwards said that the wildlife park has appeal due to its unique location, while wildlife species are brought directly into the classroom for campers.

“I think we do an excellent job of entertaining and educating the kids,” said Edwards.

Listen:
Campers: Why the WRA matters (0’42”).

[audio: https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2015/04/About-the-WRA-Clip.mp3]

Although B.C. Wildlife Park does rehabilitate wildlife, the kids are kept separate from the facility due to the high number of campers.

Unlike the Kamloops operation, Burnaby’s camps have been able to get their small group of kids involved with practical rehabilitation-themed crafts, while teaching campers about wildlife on-site.

Garter snake challenge

This spring break camp’s snake theme was inspired by the recent intake of over 500 hibernating garter snakes.

Garter snake patient on the mend.
Garter snake patient on the mend.

Several years ago, a dike in Delta collapsed, and rocks were placed in the area until construction could be organized.

This created a perfect habitat for snakes, according to WRA wildlife rehabilitator Ana Mendes, some of which were injured by shovels and construction equipment in late February 2015.

The care centre treated over 20 garter snakes in glass aquariums, while the rest hibernated in biologist-recommended bins out in one of the sheds.

Camp kids were aware of the WRA’s scaly guests and keen to learn about the issue.

“Some people are not taking care of our planet, but I’m really glad [that] we have wild animals being helped still,” said WRA camper Erin Goold, 11.

Erin (center right) with fellow wildlife heroes.
Erin (center right) with fellow wildlife heroes.

The garter snake guests have offered an uncommon experience for both rehabilitators and campers.

They have had the chance to learn about a local, on-premises species threatened by urban development.

“If you can create an amazing experience, kids will remember that, and they’ll be nice to nature in the future,” said Mendes.

Learning eco-lessons

Although the rescue association staff are pleased with the popularity of the camps, they said that they are careful to remind the children who attend that it’s not just about fun.

[pullquote align=right]Our goal is to get them to be environmental stewards[/pullquote]Sarah Carncross, education program leader at the WRA, said that it’s important for the kids understand that wildlife kept there are not for show, but there to be cared for and released back into the wild.

“Our goal is to get them to be environmental stewards,” said Carncross.

Listen:
Carncross and kids: Garter snake hibernation and healing (0’34”).

[audio: https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2015/04/Garter-Snake-Clip.mp3]

The crafts that kids work on during camps often have a specific purpose for wildlife species, depending on the week’s theme.

Making wildlife-inspired crafts.
Making wildlife-inspired crafts.

In past camp sessions, bird feeders have been fashioned sustainably out of recycled milk cartons, while bright bird cut-outs serve the purpose of preventing window collisions.

Camps have ended each day with a fun and educational Jeopardy-style, snake-themed quiz game based on the day’s lessons.

Parents who picked up their campers at 3 p.m. have said that they’re happy to have had their kids outdoors, active, and learning.

“To me, it’s very important that kids don’t sit inside and watch TV all day,” said Maggie Misfeldt, grandmother to two of the campers and retired school principal.

Misfeldt said that the fact that her grandchildren would have an opportunity to learn about wildlife in such a unique setting was a big motivation for signing them up.