BRANFORD — “I got to hang a boa constrictor around my neck!”
“Ferrets are like puppies — one of them snuggled in the hood of my hoodie — while I was wearing it!”
“I felt the spikes on the back of a hedgehog!”
“Larry the lizard licked my fingers!”
These reports from “what I did on my summer vacation” might startle some of their teachers — and parents. But children ages 6-11 who attended the weekly Animal Camp run by the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter in Branford experienced up-close-and-personal interactions with the natural world this summer.
The camp, at Young’s Pond park in Branford, is designed to teach humane treatment of animals, how to protect the environment, and positive behavior toward humans of all ages.
“Every day something good happens,” says Dawn Buffone, co-manager of the summer camp with Brittany Sullivan. Sullivan is a full-time early-childhood teacher during the school year, and Buffone has been with the Cosgrove shelter for six years.
“A kid will make a difference by reaching out, being nice to other kids,” Buffone said. “Shy kids blossom, surprising their parents. Animals bring them out. Animals aren’t judgmental. They connect with all children, even those with disabilities.”
Begun in 2010 by Laura Selvaggio Burban, director of the Cosgrove shelter, the day camp brings together children ages 6 to 11. We teach safe handling of all animals, and bugs, too, because they’re all part of our eco-system,” she said. This year, the camp also held a special session just for 4- and 5-year-olds.
In addition to nature walks and field trips to places such as the Mystic Aquarium and a rehabilitation center for animals, the camp program explains how to help a hurt animal, such as a baby bird that has fallen out a nest.
Branford Animal Camp has high behavior expectations. The list of 17 rules includes: “I will NOT fight with other campers with my hands or my words” and “I will NOT tease or bully other campers.” There is an 8:1 ratio of children to counselors.
“We’re like a family,” Sullivan said. “I love doing this because we have a close relationship with all the children.”
The counselors give out “Caught Doing Good” bracelets and do a little dance on bestowing the positive reward for a camper’s special kindness to another.
Many “guest animals” visit the camp during each of its weekly sessions during the summer. They are provided by the Branford company, Curious Creatures, headed by Ron DeLucia and his son, Patrick. The DeLucias explain to the children that the animals brought to the camp have been raised to be pets, so they are not wild and can be handled without danger.
Delucia spread a red-and-white rope in a circle on a rug in front of the 30 campers as a place for the animals to roam. This session the animals included “Tortie the tortoise,” about 10 years old. Tortie allowed himself to be passed from hand to hand while DeLucia explained he would grow very large and live over 100 years.
“Larry,” the striped lizard, was about 15-inches long and stretched over the children’s palms. His formal name is a blue-tongued skink. One girl rubbed Larry’s nose, and his tongue darted out to lick her eager fingers to squeals around the room.
“When we’re finished here today, everybody is going to do what?” DeLucia asked.
“Wash our hands!” shouted the children.
Other animals for this visit included Wally, a 2-year-old alligator, about 18-inches long. The father and son explained the difference between a crocodile and an alligator — it’s all about the snout shape — as part of their educational presentation. The company does not sell animals. Its role is to present educational, interactive programs at schools, camps, and parties.
“Ferrets are very playful, just like puppies,” DeLucia said.
He presented two ferrets who squiggled around on the floor and dug under the rug, causing the children to whoop and giggle. The long, skinny muscatines ran up and down the children’s bodies and tucked into the front pockets of a child with a hoodie over her green Branford Animal Camp T-shirt. The shirt is emblazoned with the phone number of the Cosgrove Animal Shelter and the acronym FLEMDS that stands for Food, Love, Exercise, Medical, Discipline, Shelter and Socializing.
Other animals presented were Franklin the guinea pig, which DeLucia said is “very sociable,” and Rocky Balboa, a red-tailed boa constrictor.
“Rocky is a pet snake. He’s been raised with people. He likes being around people and likes to climb. Treat him nicely, and he’ll be nice to you. But don’t ever pick up a wild snake,” DeLucia said. He then brought out two pet pythons and passed them around the campers while giving important facts about snakes.
The final animal of the day was a chinchilla, whose twitching whiskers indicated he was “nervous.” Still, he allowed himself to be petted by many campers.
The camp’s environmental education includes teaching about the role of insects and bugs, “such as cockroaches, meal worms, stink bugs, and scorpions,” Sullivan said.
“Even though the kids don’t want to touch bugs on our nature walks, they learn what the bugs are for and then they’ll touch all of them,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan and Buffone smiled broadly as they watched the children. “They are so engaged. That little boy over there is autistic. He’s been coming here for three years, and has grown so much,” Sullivan said.