Dear My Goodness,
My 12-year-old son really loves animals, but we can't adopt one because of apartment rules and family allergies. Where can I take him to foster his interest and also help the local stray animal population?
—Jessica in Bethesda
Dear Jessica, You may be imagining volunteer work at a shelter for homeless dogs and cats. The idea of giving care to an animal that has been neglected is incredibly appealing. But here is a response you might not have expected. Consider, instead, encouraging your son to think more globally.
Here's why. Very few animal shelters permit volunteers under the age of 16. Working with animals that have been mistreated demands emotional maturity and physical strength. At the ASPCA or the Humane Society you're likely to find animals from puppy mills and dog fighting rings—evidence of man's inhumanity to dogs. Even dogs surrendered by decent homes may have fallen into a cycle of bad behavior, provoking frustration and irritation and leading to more bad behavior. Should your son want to volunteer at a shelter when he turns 16, fine—the work can be satisfying and fun.
When the time comes, he should remember that while shelter volunteering isn't always a huge challenge, it does always have an emotional component. One of the most pleasant, least challenging duties at an animal shelter is socializing cats; it's also an exercise in reducing the volunteer's heart rate and blood pressure. The volunteer sits in a comfy chair in the cat room and waits for a curious feline to come over to be stroked. As the cat becomes used to people, it becomes more likely to find a home. But it takes some maturity on the part of the volunteer to find that a particularly lovable cat has been adopted away and to be fine with that.
Walking a shelter dog is also fun; you can feel the gratitude, and the volunteer is matched with a dog appropriate for his or her experience. But there are limits to the fun. Many shelters advise volunteers not to keep the dogs out for more than 15 minutes (the animal might miss a chance to be adopted) and not to let any member of the public pet the dog—a liability issue—or allow the dog to get close to any other dogs—a contagious disease issue.
For now, while your son is a pre-teen, thinking globally is a good way to go, though he won't have the direct effect you were anticipating on your local stray population. (You can still send in a donation.) So widen your options to include zoos, conservation groups, and horses.
Washington D.C.'s National Zoo has special tours and summer camps for boys and girls entering grades five-10. And here's an interesting notion—the Snore & Roar tour, in which you camp in a tent for the night at the zoo. You can choose the reptile tour or hang with the big cats. (To stay the night, you have to be a Friend of the National Zoo; family membership is $60.)
The National Zoo also offers five-class sessions for ages 11 and up that teach wildlife conservation ("meet experts on the cutting edge of saving endangered species") or the evolution of the modern zoo (here, kids can design their own "ideal zoo"). These sound great, but the cost, $725, is a disincentive.
Not so widely known is the five-day sleep-away camp the National Zoo also offers for ages 10-15 ($650) at its biology institute on the border of Shenandoah National Park. There, after the two-hour morning hikes, your son would talk to the scientists who study and breed endangered creatures at the site—including clouded leopards and red pandas.
For My Goodness readers out West seeking an animal experience, there's the San Diego Zoo, where for $150 (scholarships available), you can join the Conservation Corps for ages 14-18, learn wildlife lore, and then make presentations to the public. The San Diego Zoo has plenty of education programs, including an appealing art camp for fourth-graders all the way up to adults.
National conservation groups, notably the Audubon Society, offer classes and family weekend outings during which you and your son would learn about how ecosystems work, as well as how to tell a sparrow from finch.
Your son is at a great age to talk about how human beings sometimes treat animals carelessly and why pets can end up abandoned. So direct him to the Humane Society's kids' Web site, where young people can learn how to lobby their representatives to ensure the humane treatment of animals and fundraise for their furry friends. He's also at a good age to learn the interesting ways in which animals can be helpful to people.
There are animals that you couldn't bring home to your apartment under any circumstances, but from which human beings can derive great benefit. Take a look with your son at the University of California-Davis Veterinary School Web site for information about equine therapy for people with mental or physical challenges. There's a program not far from where you live. I bet they wouldn't mind having you come observe; it's a very cool thing to watch. Kids and adults gain strength, balance, and confidence from riding—even simply from being around—horses. There's nothing as wonderful for a kid as asking a horse to move over, giving the animal a gentle shove with a hip or shoulder, and having the 2,000-pound beast move as ordered.
Good for you for picking up on your son's interest and encouraging it. As a bonus, your query has led to my own wonderful discovery: There exists in the world such a thing as elephant-assisted therapy.