The projects will entertain Happy Hollow’s animals while engaging their five senses. Joahnna Harlow reports.
It’s a sunny summer day at Happy Hollow Park & Zoo and the kids arriving for their first day of camp have an important question on their minds: Do I have what it takes to be a zookeeper?
Welcome to Happy Hollow’s Keepers in Training camp. “It’s actually one of our staples,” says Education Coordinator Kristy Benner. “Even though we do change out titles and topics [for our camps] usually about every two years, this is one that we offer every year because of its popularity.”
During this week-long program, the kids will spend time learning in the classroom, encountering some of the zoo’s animals close up, as well as applying all their lessons with plenty of hands-on games and activities. Take today’s craft, which has the kids building “enrichment toys” to entertain the animals by engaging their senses. After constructing tissue paper mobiles and rolled newspaper sculptures for the macaws, the small group heads over to the bird enclosure where the feathered inhabitants wait to appreciatively rip these offerings to shreds. “While our activities are educational, they’re a blast!” Benner says with a smile.
As campers explore the zoo this week, they will even get chances to step behind-the-scenes—visiting the animals’ sleeping areas, stepping into the on-site vet’s clinic, and even entering the animal enclosures themselves. “There’s something really special when you realize you’re on the other side of that barrier. You’re in a spot where an animal lives!” Benner explains. “And the enclosures are meant to mimic the natural environment so when you’re there you feel like you’re in Africa—you feel like you’re somewhere else.”
She adds that the kids aren’t just idly standing around back there. “They’re rearranging the enclosures. They are picking up the poop… It’s one of their favorite activities! They feel like they’re really making a difference and they suddenly realize ‘I’m doing what a zookeeper really does. I’m not just pretending.’ ”
Whether the kids attend this camp or one of Happy Hollow’s other offerings, the goal remains the same. “When parents pick them up, they should be non-stop talking about everything they got to do, all the animals they got to meet, all their new experiences,” Benner says. “They go go go… And when they get home, they pass out.”
“We have a young gentleman whose been with us for a little while now and he’s had such a good time he goes home and he reenacts every single activity that day,” Benner continues. “He plays the game again, he makes the craft again, he does it all over again, and he teaches his parents (one is a schoolroom teacher and one is a school principle) and his little brother.”
Happy Hollow is certainly living out its mission to connect people to nature through play. “This should be a lifetime moment. When they’re here for this week, it should stick with them. It gives them a hope that there’s more out there,” concludes Benner. “We have kids here coming from the inner city… They get a week of camp and all of a sudden the world’s a bigger place.”
Watching the young zookeepers-in-training interact with the macaws on a July afternoon, it’s obvious why Happy Hollow has ranked as the second most visited place in San Jose after the SAP Center. The park will doubtlessly continue to cultivate adventurous spirits and curious minds for decades to come.
Happy Hollow’s summer camps are full, but keep an eye out for their Spring and Winter break camps coming soon. For those seeking financial assistance, be sure to check out the Citywide Scholarship which covers 75% of Happy Hollow’s camp fees for qualifying families