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Jessi and team share their dream of teaching others to teach about animals. Summer campers visit Animal Wonders for the week and learn how to handle and present their animals.

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Imagine a week of wandering in the wilderness, playing with friends, telling stories, and hanging out with exotic animals.  Basically sounds like my dream summer camp, and I'm lucky enough that I got to make my dream into reality.  


Since I like to talk a lot and share a lot, I quickly realized that I couldn't fit all my favorite things into one camp, so I made two camps, Wild Animal Educators and Amazing Animal Behaviorists.  First things first, we wanted to set up outside, so we set up in the forest where we could explore any animals that might be curious and being out in nature gives us the freedom to use all of our senses.  This way, the campers could feel the sun and breeze, hear the songs of songbirds, smell the wildflowers, and maybe even taste the wild onions.  We often see woodpeckers, squirrels, hawks, mushrooms, lichen, and insects galore, so there would definitely be plenty for the campers to see.

We let our community know about our camps and we were overwhelmed by enthusiasm.  We even had kids from other counties join us for the week.  In our outdoor classroom, we shared our animal ambassadors with the campers.  In this setting, we get to do more than we usually do with classroom visits.  We had the time and space to introduce each of the campers to the animal one at a time.  They not only learned what made each animal unique as a species and as an individual, they also learned how to interact closely with each animal.  They got to touch the animals that enjoyed being touched.  They learned how to hold the animals that liked being held.  They got to feed some of the animals treats and they got to spend some time just hanging out with the animals.

Now, this wasn't just animal hangout time for the campers.  That would be cool and all, but this camp had a deeper purpose.  We want to help these lovers of animals and nature become a force of positive change.  We want them to be the next wave of wildlife educators.  Our goal is to create ripples in the water of our society.  The animals are the driving force of wonder.  Think of them as a pebble tossed into calm water.  The first ripple was our teachers, the professors who taught us how to care for the animals.  The second ripple is us, our interest in the animals and pursuit of knowledge about them.  The third ripple is the kids.  When we share our information with them and the kids create a fourth ripple when they share their new knowledge with others.

We want the ripples to continue far beyond the animals and us, but if we don't communicate the information well enough, the ripples will fade and eventually cease, so we must work to keep the waves going, which is why we teach storytelling.  In order to become more than an animal lover, the campers need to learn how to share their passion and knowledge about animals with others.  I can share 100 facts about animals, but that's usually not the most effective way to get others to hear and remember what makes that animal awesome.

For most people, it's much easier to remember a story than it is to remember a list of facts.  A story gives context, emotion, personality, and relatability to the information.  While lectures might have their place in education programs, I'm a big supporter of engaging an audience in the learning experience using entertainment, and by entertainment, I'm not talking about a song and dance and a circus act, I'm talking about sharing information in a fun and relatable way.  

Now, I love sharing stories about the animals, but I also know it can be intimidating and a lot of people are nervous talking in front of an audience, so first we have to get the campers comfortable talking, so every morning, we each shared a personal story about an animal.  Next, we have to get them used to using their voice as a tool.  We run because movement helps us get our nervous energy out and then we yell, making our voices go higher (screaming sounds) and making our voices go low (low voices).  The third piece to the puzzle is using movement to make the story more engaging, so the campers tell a mundane story, but using their dynamic voice and exaggerated body movements, they try to make it as exciting as it can be.

This is one of my favorite parts of camp.  These kids have so much enthusiasm and watching them gives me energy and hope for the future.  In a world filled with so much turmoil and negativity, being able to make waves of passion for wildlife, love of nature, and great storytelling is like taking a breath of clean forest air. 

After meeting and learning about over 20 animals, the campers get their animal assignments, which they will be studying and working with for the next few days.  At the end of the week, the campers get to present their animals to their families in their first stint as wildlife educators.  I am about burst with pride as I watched them out-do themselves with what they remembered about the animals, how clearly they spoke in front of the audience, and how their eyes would light up when they realized that they had a story to tell.

The week went by way too fast and now we're getting ready for our second camp, which will focus on animal behavior and positive reinforcement training.  Teaching kids to use clickers is gonna be fun.  I'm so grateful that I have the opportunity to pursue my dreams.  Creating these camps is something I never even thought about doing until one day, I realized it was exactly what I wanted to do.  

Thank you for going on this adventure with me.  If you'd like to continue learning about animals and going on adventures with our little organization, subscribe to our YouTube channel AnimalWondersMontana, and if you'd like  to give our animals gifts of food, toys, bedding, and more, you can check out our Amazon wishlist.  Link is below.  Thanks, guys, and we'll see you next week.