Some Alexandria youths headed off to day camp this summer didn't learn anything about baseball or boating. They spent their hours getting to know the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter on Eisenhower Avenue and learning a little more about animals.
Every week the shelter, which is operated by the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria (AWLA), hosted a group of campers representing specific age groups — third- and fourth-graders, fifth- and sixth- graders, and seventh- and eighth-graders — for some quality face time with the shelter’s resident dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, ferret, turtles and birds.
"It’s a fun camp,” said camper Ethan Gotsch, 11. “My favorite part was sponsoring an animal." During the week, each camper was asked to choose one shelter animal to promote to the public for adoption. Ethan chose a brown-and-white spayed female cat called Goose, one that had been known to hiss at strangers. "She's a sweetie pie," he said. "If you put a treat in your hand and go into her cage, she starts snuggling." To acquaint the public with Goose’s charms, Ethan produced a professional-looking poster that he posted on her cage. It concluded with: "If you give Goose a nice home, she'll love you." Goose was adopted.
“We want to start teaching children at an early age that animals deserve to be treated with respect and kindness,” said Chelsea Lindsey, who directs the camp. “We also teach them the language of animals so that they can understand what they’re trying to communicate. I've seen a number of dogs surrendered to the shelter because they bit a child, sometimes due to poor communication between the dog and child. It's important to me that we teach the kids how to respect and understand a dog's emotions."
Each day at shelter summer camp was different: On Mondays, the campers toured the shelter and began work on producing a video that told a tale about life at the shelter. Tuesday was Small Animals Day, when the kids learned about all of the small animals — rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, reptiles — that come to the shelter in need of homes and competed in making ideal habitats for specific kinds of small animals. Wednesday was Cat Day, which featured talks from the shelter's Animal Control officers and the staffer who manages fostering of cats and kittens. Thursday was Dog Day, which included taking shelter dogs for walks and viewing videos showing how dogs communicate with people; youths also smeared peanut butter inside empty toilet paper rolls and provided them as treats to dogs awaiting adoption. Friday was Wildlife Day, which included a game about wildlife living in the area, terrarium making and a nature walk.
The youths also were treated to visits from a local veterinarian and an appearance by dog handlers from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, who brought along two seeing-eye dogs with them to demonstrate how the dogs aid blind people.
Camper Victoria Lopez's favorite moment of the week was when about 10 kittens were transported into the shelter's community room for "kitten time" — playing with toys the campers had made for them. Victoria, 11, also enjoyed training the dogs, especially learning a special method to stop them from barking known as Four on the Floor. “We show the kids how to train their pets using only positive reinforcement,” Lindsey said.
Kate Luwaski, 10, who doesn’t have a pet of her own, decided dogs were her favorite shelter animal and also learned that cats’ body language can give cues about how they’re feeling. “The veterinarian told us to watch a cat’s tail — if it goes up, that means he’s feeling friendly,” Kate said.
Cami Holmes, who turned 11 in August, is allergic to cats and finds dogs “too rambunctious.” Instead, she chose two black rabbits to sponsor and loved feeding them hay. Cami designed a persuasive “Adopt Theodore and Samantha” poster for their cage, but she was harboring a secret wish about the bunnies. “Hopefully they’ll be adopted,” she said. “Hopefully by me.”