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A look into Black Pine's new kids summer camp programs

One of the campers, Cyrus, brought along his own digital camera to take photos of the animals on the tour. Here, he captures Black Pine's only Sumatran tiger, Top Cat, who was surrendered from a private zoo in Ohio.
Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
One of the campers, Cyrus, brought along his own digital camera to take photos of the animals on the tour. Here, he captures Black Pine's only Sumatran tiger, Top Cat, who was surrendered from a private zoo in Ohio.

Black Pine Animal Sanctuary opened its doors for their first ever summer camp this year, beginning in June.

One of the camp groups collected pinecones and pieces of long grass that will be added to the animals’ enclosures. Earlier in the day, the kids learned about enrichment and why it’s important for animals in captivity.

Black Pine Animal Sanctuary in Albion is an accredited animal sanctuary, which means it doesn’t buy, sell, breed or trade animals. All of the animals in its care are surrendered or confiscated and will live there for the rest of their lives.

Education coordinator Lexus Garces said having the kids find these enrichment items helps Black Pine’s staff, but also gives the kids a better understanding of what they’ve already learned.

“We’re finding things to keep their brains active and engaged, so that they don’t start doing harmful or destructive behaviors," Garces said.

Pinecones can be used for dietary enrichment by putting nut butters and seeds on them and giving them to the animals. The grass the kids are picking is pre-approved plants that don’t grow inside their habitats, to give them something new and interesting to play with or chew on.

Education coordinator Lexus Garces points to one of the sanctuary's two spider monkeys, Lucy, who was previously owned as a pet and defanged.
Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
Education coordinator Lexus Garces points to one of the sanctuary's two spider monkeys, Lucy, who was previously owned as a pet and defanged.

The programs began in June, with “critter camp,” designed for kids ages 10 to 13. Beginning in July, the sanctuary will have “keeper camps” which are designed for teens ages 14 to 17.

Garces teaches all of the camps, mostly by herself, though sometimes she has volunteers. She says she hopes splitting the age groups will allow her to go more in depth on topics.

She said she learned very quickly that she had to keep her activities short and concise to keep from losing the kids' attention.

“So, in the morning we talked about the science of all the animals, that was our classroom portion, and then we did the tour which was like their stories," Garces said. "I think if I have the older kids and more time with them, we’ll be able to cover those, all of it, just in more depth.”

This group was hit with a particularly hot week in June. On this day, there was a high of 96 degrees and the cloud coverage was rolling, which meant Garces had to be sure to take frequent breaks inside buildings for water and popsicles.

All of the kids were told to bring refillable water bottles with them so they could take them on the tour of the grounds. Black Pine is settled on 18 acres of land and houses more than 75 animals that range from birds and reptiles up to bears and tigers.

Between the size of the park and the heat, the tour is spread out over two days.

On the first day, the kids tour the front half of the park. In this area, there are birds, primates, farm animals and, perhaps most exciting for this group, five tigers.

It takes the group about an hour to tour the first half of the park. At each enclosure they stop to talk briefly about the animal’s story and what brought them to Black Pine.

The kids have been given journals to write in and one boy has brought a digital camera, stopping to take photos of each animal.

Claire, one of the girls in the group, takes care to write down the name of each animal whose enclosure they pass. She says seeing the tigers was her favorite part of the day.

“You never really get to see them, ever, because they’re so rare now because people hunted them for their skins, their population decreased a lot," Claire said.

Claire takes notes on each animal the group passes as they tour the sanctuary, writing down the name of each animal and other information Garces shares.
Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
Claire takes notes on each animal the group passes as they tour the sanctuary, writing down the name of each animal and other information Garces shares.

On such a hot day, several of the primates are inside, sheltering from the sun, but Garces stops and talks about the animal anyway, showing pictures from Black Pine’s guidebook.

The guidebook features all of the current residents at Black Pine, along with some information about their species and backstory of how they came to the sanctuary. Garces said she saw a real interest in the book from the first group.

“I was very surprised when we were having our lunch break, we had done our tour in the morning and they had taken the guidebook and they were reading it to each other on their lunch break and they didn’t even really ask or anything," she said. "Maybe it was just that group really was interested in learning about the animals, but I thought that was really sweet.”

Many of the animals at Black Pine come from sad or painful circumstances. Four of the tigers were seized from Jeff & Lauren’s Oklahoma Zoo, the zoo once owned by Joe Exotic and the subject of the streaming documentary Tiger King on Netflix. Two of the primates were owned by a couple after their children moved out and they had them defanged, which means removing their canine teeth.

Garces said she tries to avoid any graphic details of the animals’ previous treatment, while also being honest about the dangers of the exotic animal trade.

“Maybe even just mentioning the drug trade or mentioning the Zanesville Massacre sounds, like, graphic, but the details of it could be much worse," she said. "And I’m expecting that the teens will want to know more about those things and in more depth. With the younger groups I haven’t gone into more detail.”

After the tour, Elijah, one of the kids from this group, said it was his favorite part of the day.

"It was really interesting to see all the tigers from Tiger King’s thing," he said. "I mean, it’s a really sad story but it is really interesting that those tigers ended up here so it was cool to see that.”

One of Black Pine's three white tigers, Ima, lounges in the sun, mostly indifferent to the group that passes by her enclosure. Ima is one of the four tigers rescued from the former 'Tiger King' zoo in Oklahoma.
Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
One of Black Pine's three white tigers, Ima, lounges in the sun, mostly indifferent to the group that passes by her enclosure. Ima is one of the four tigers rescued from the former 'Tiger King' zoo in Oklahoma.

Much of the camp is about learning about the exotic animal trade, why it’s bad and how to spot it.

Garces said she hopes kids are able to take away a better understanding of accredited zoos and sanctuaries and places where animals may not be being cared for properly. She also hopes they’ll be able to spot inappropriate ownership in the future and avoid it.

“So, it’s not just exotic animals and the pet trade, it’s also just I guess how humans interact with animals and they can learn to recognize what is healthy and what is safe and what is not," she said. "Things to be weary of.”

Cyrus is another member of the group. He seemed to understand the gravity of the exotic animal trade and why it’s important for him to know about why sanctuaries like Black Pine exist.

“So that once I’m older and actually able to do something, we can help protect the animals because if we didn’t know this stuff we wouldn’t be able to do it as well,” Cyrus said.

The teen camps began the first week of July and take place over three days rather than two, allowing Garces more time to cover complex issues in the world of animal handling. Registration is still open for any teens who are interested.

Garces’ position was only funded within the last several months. Before she was officially doing education programming, she was doing animal care. Now, she’s excited to get to share what she knows.

“If you’re just keeping the information to yourself, everything you know about the exotic animal trade, it doesn’t feel like the impact is there," Garces said. "And it feels good because kids are so interested and they want to learn and they want to know things.”

Black Pine hopes to continue the camps next year, hopefully expanding their education staff and finding ways to sponsor kids who otherwise can’t afford the cost of the camp.

Ella Abbott is a multimedia reporter for 89.1 WBOI. She is a strong believer in the ways audio storytelling can engage an audience and create a sensory experience.