Flint, MI– Shekinah Lee knows the world is a big place– she’s been all over it.
The world first grew for Lee when she moved from Flint to Mississippi, when she was in the sixth grade. It grew again as she traveled to Florida, Nebraska, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan.
But it was not the distance between these places that made Lee’s world bigger. It was the animals.
In Flint, Lee played with cats, and observed bugs, dogs, and squirrels. In Mississippi, she held owls and alligators. In her travels, and zoology education from Michigan State University, she learned that the Ukuku bear is native to South America, and the ball python, native to parts of Africa, was historically a symbol of wealth and status.
“I think that when you know about the animals in your own community and around the world, it makes the world seem bigger. I’ve always felt that way,” Lee said. “If you only know about the same six animals the world seems like you’ve got a grasp on it, but then you realize there’s millions of species and you start realizing that these animals are tied to different places and it makes the world bigger to you. It’s not just Flint anymore.”
Now, the 34-year-old zoologist and science teacher is on a mission to show Flint children what she’s learned, and offer them the same hands-on experience with animals that changed her life, through Keeper Kamp.
The camp is a five-day, interactive training camp that will teach children ages 5-13, all about handling animals and what being a “keeper” of animals looks like at home, in a zoo, and out in the field. The camp will run from July 12-16, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. It costs $175 per child, and lunch is included with the camp. (Sign-up details are below.)
“At the end of the day, the basis of most animal professions is about animal care. So at some point, you’re going to have to know how to handle the animals,” Lee said.
The first three days of the camp will be spent learning about animal keeping techniques in those three environments. The remaining days will be about taking care of the food source for the animals, going out in the field, and feeding the animals.
By the end of the camp, participants will have earned ten animal handling hours, and an Animal Keeper Certification from Lee’s company, No 2 Stripes Alike.
Lee said earning those hours are important for children looking to eventually pursue a career involving animals.
“I want them to skip the hurdles that I had to go through. I had to hunt for experience, and that was difficult,” she said. “And so with me bringing the experience to them…the next place they go to, they’ll know the fundamentals and it’ll just make life easier for them as they gain more experience.”
Lee had been planning this camp for a long time, and actually wanted to do it last year. Due to the pandemic, an in-person, interactive camp wasn’t possible.
She got creative and held virtual learning sessions, called “Zootorials,” but she says she’s excited for children to be able to physically touch the animals.
“That’s the best part for me. I feel like I’m doing the world a service because you see people who’ve never touched a snake, and they immediately go, ‘That doesn’t feel like I thought it would.’ And it’s the same thing with the roaches,” Lee said. “And so immediately the perception and everything has changed, because they’re like, ‘Okay, well what else don’t I know?’”
Getting children exposed to and interacting with animals they don’t know about is the goal of Lee’s company, especially since she grew up not seeing anyone like herself in the field of zoology.
“You never know who’s going to be the next wolf biologist, or alligator biologist. You never know,” Lee said. “So by me exposing them to the species, I’m kind of poking the fire, like, ‘Okay, does this excite you? Does this animal excite you?’ Because honestly, we need people on the frontier for conservation for every animal at this point.”
At press time, four slots were still available. You can register by calling (810) 931-2315, or emailing Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org.