"Animals aren't quite what Hollywood makes them out to be," says Scott Creed of Camp Muskoka. Kendra Strauss hopes that's true. Her eyes bulge as Jack The Gripper, a boa constrictor, slides across her shoulders. But Creed is right. Kendra is in no danger. In fact, Jack's interested only in using her neck as a comfortable place to hang.
"Our philosophy is to have respect for the environment and respect for each other," says Creed. "And kids who come here are all on common ground; they love animals."
Under Creed's watchful eye and strict supervision, campers can experience wildlife up close and personal. He's been working with animals for 10 years and his show for the kids is both entertaining and educational. Among the wildlife displayed are a hawk, a falcon and a baby lynx. These creatures will never be domestic pets, he says, making sure the kids understand the distinction.
During the show, Creed encourages the campers to howl along with Kara, an Arctic wolf pup. Elsa, a seven-month-old cougar, receives a kiss on the nose from camper Kristen Demeny. A number of kids hold Julius Squeezer, a 15-foot Burmese python, who, like his slithering counterpart Jack, prefers to nap rather than devour small children. Dispelling myths about animals is also a big part of the Jungle Cat World experience, says director Christa Klose. This co-ed camp has about 40 campers a week. "This year," she says, "we had tiger cats, jaguar cubs, scorpions, tarantulas and a tamed Arctic wolf. The children can actually touch the animals, they learn that each animal has a specific personality."
And in the process of learning about animals, campers learn about themselves. "We help kids get over their fears," Klose says. "In the evening we have night safaris, so campers can see how the animals behave at night. If a wolf howls, the kids join in."
Scott Creed says the number one rule at Camp Muskoka is to have fun. "Our number two rule, which is just as important, is respect."
Like most, Creed believes animals play an important role in society. "Sending your child to a camp like this offers a unique experience," he says. "The kids transfer the respect they learn from the animals into their day-to-day lives."
Five hundred kids come through Camp Muskoka over the summer. Besides many games and activities, there's a pond for catching frogs and salamanders. But the biggest hit is the petting zoo, with its llamas, donkeys, rabbits, sheep, ducks and geese.
"It's funny," Creed says, "but I'll ask the kids what their favourite animals are and they'll say the rabbits or goats. Those are the animals they can hold and feed. We teach the kids how to care for them. "Egalacres Farm Camp offers a similar sort of experience for the camper, but it's an actual working farm and kids collect eggs, groom horses and feed sheep. "They enjoy the sports and the pool," says Jan Stewart, the camp's owner and director, "but the kids really come for the animals. It's not a rushed pace here, nothing is regimented."
A co-ed camp that sees 60 kids a week, Egalacres has great hiking trails and horseback riding as well. And a camper can also learn first-hand about life; in the past, some campers have been lucky enough to see a lamb's birth.
Stewart laughs at their reactions. "Some kids ooh and ahh, saying, 'I don't want to see this.' But the majority of them think it's great."
Like at any animal camp, kids learn respect for others by learning respect for animals. "You treat the animals the way you like to be treated," Stewart says. "I try to impress on the kids how smart animals are. Sometimes animals are a lot smarter than people."