At Pet Camp this week, the campers at the Humane Society of the Nature Coast headquarters have come nose to snout with furry rodents, leathery reptiles, feathered friends and many-hued aquarium fish. On Thursday, the 8- to 14-year-old enrollees took a field trip to Petco, the pet supply store that, more importantly, also sells small exotic animals.
The campers looked over species of critters that they had never seen before, let alone considered as pets, eliciting wide-open eyes, attentive faces, coos, endearments, a few grimaces and shudders, and good-natured laughter.
During the five-day camp, sponsored by the county Parks and Recreation department along with the Humane Society, the 15 attendees have focused on the care, cost and responsibility of dog and cat ownership.
Humane Society director Joanne Schoch wanted to expose them to more by taking them on the road.
Dave Donald, inventory manager at Petco in the Coastal Way shopping center, also stressed care, cost and responsibility as he showed off the store's live offerings.
He talked about the animals' origins and personalities and described their needs in a caged environment. He passed the creatures around for the youngsters to feel and hold, first cautioning that, "Anything with a mouth can bite you."
Cradling a ferret, Donald asked, "What family do they belong to?"
"Weasel," piped up 11-year-old Melissa Bienstock of Spring Hill. It was a correct guess. "I'm an animal person," she explained, "so it looked like a weasel, with its long body."
Her 9-year-old sister, Rebecca, responded to Donald's question about the meaning of "diurnal"
"They sleep at night and wake up in the day," Rebecca answered.
Keeping such human hours might make a ferret an ideal animal companion, but Donald pointed out ferrets are "rough players" and, with their musky odor, must be bathed weekly.
Ferrets, it must be pointed out, also cost $139, although sometimes they are on sale for $99.
A hamster here, a chameleon there ...
For prospective owners not keen on administering baths, a chinchilla is an alternative. The South American native, about the size of a plump rabbit, carries such a dense fur coat that it can soak up too much water and die of hypothermia. Instead, the chinchilla prefers a dust bath. As Donald put a dust bowl into the cage, a chinchilla immediately jumped in, rolling and somersaulting. Chortles chorused from the onlookers.
"He was just rolling around like a big dust storm," laughed Morgan Hartman, 11. The former Spring Hill resident, now of New Jersey, was visiting locally.
Moving on to hamsters, Stephanie Rix, 10, of Brooksville, announced she wanted two. Hamsters aren't very social with one another, Donald noted, and fare best when kept alone. "I'll put them in separate cages," Rix responded.
At the reptile emporium, 9-year-old Stephanie Margetta of Spring Hill answered Donald's question about the habitat of amphibians. "They live on both land and water," she replied, adding, "I learned that last year in third grade science."
Among reptiles, a toy-sized bearded dragon, a chameleon the size of a lapel pin and tree frog that could fill a sandwich bun drew the kids close.
"I would like some kind of a lizard," said Rebecca Bienstock. Having handled the bearded dragon, she said, "It was pretty cool. Squishy."
With the white-bellied green tree frog in hand, Donald said he wouldn't pass it around "because it likes to pee." As if to prove his point, the frog did exactly that. Kids erupted with giggles. As the group moved to the tropical fish station, Rix called out, "What are you going to do about the pee?"
It was a lesson learned earlier in the week. Schoch, the Humane Society director, said one of the canines defecated while workers were washing dogs at the humane society shelter. She asked the campers, "Who's going to scoop up the poop?" When no one offered, Schoch pointed out that owning a pet means you have to clean up after it.
Bearded dragon: $59.99.
White-striped tree frog: $19.99.
Approaching the glass-walled snake enclosures, some kids moved to the back of the group. But James Crosby, 10, of Bushnell, stepped right up to take a proffered king snake in hand. While the pencil-thin legless reptile was only about 12 inches long, Donald said it could grow to six feet long and four inches in diameter.
"So, this is a baby," mused Crosby. Passing the snake on, Crosby suggested, "It felt like some squishy string."
King snake: $85.99.
The day-campers considered costs of a pet and its care. They'd come to the store after writing the previous day about a pet each would like to own. They estimated its needs and scurried with paper in hand through the store's inventory, jotting down prices of dog beds, dog crates, cat shampoo, grooming supplies, pet vitamins, food, dishes and more.
Rough tallies suggested $100 for a cat — the cats themselves are free at special adoption days at Petco — or about $600 for a dog, without veterinary expenses.
'Not just here to sell you a pet ... '
After perusing all the animals, Kymberli Kersey, 12, still yearned for a cat. The Weeki Wachee girl explained, "I like cats. They're cuddlable. They stay with you."
Donald said Petco does not sell cats or dogs since they are readily available at animal rescue shelters and they refers customers looking those pets to those shelters.
Schoch praised Petco for its devotion to adoption and the education it provides to all customers for pets. "They're not just here to sell you a pet and make a buck," she said.
Store manager Jen Cucino noted, "Sometimes a child isn't ready for a pet, the responsibility and care." In that, a sale isn't made until a family is prepared to take on the chores and care required.
Today, the campers plan to continue their education with a visit to the Hernando County Animal Services office.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.