MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Here's the kind of summer camp that I bet a lot of adults would've loved to attend as kids or even now. In Southern California, there's a camp where kids learn to care for sick and stranded baby sea lions and elephant seals. Gloria Hillard takes us there.
GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: The four elephant seals lounging and swimming in the small pool at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach all have names. Doing the introductions is 11-year-old Jameson Ibe.
JAMESON IBE: OK, so the one in the pool is Little Foot. And see that - the darker one on the side, the one that just got up and put its head down again? Like, she's right next to the fence. That's Lapsha, the one looking at us. I think Hombre and Lapsha seem to be, like, best friends.
HILLARD: The baby elephant seals are now quite hefty, but when they were brought in just a few months ago, they were tiny - just skin and bones and near death. They were in the same condition as the sea lion pups that are the primary patients here.
JAMESON: It's sad and happy to see them come in 'cause - it's sad because they have to come in, but it's good that they're coming in to get rehabilitated.
HILLARD: At the center's summer day camp, kids 8 to 12 are learning all about how to care for those sick and injured marine mammals, from how to clean an animal covered with oil to rescuing a stranded baby sea lion. Stuffed-toy seals are stand-ins.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So first thing you do is when you go over him, you're going to throw this towel over his head so he can't see.
HILLARD: Once they're rescued, they're going to need some nutrition. Here, they call it fish smoothies.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So do I have anyone that wants to cut fish for me? I need two people.
HILLARD: All the wide-eyed kids standing in a semi-circle raise their hands. And then after adding some vitamins, protein and Karo syrup...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Go ahead and press this button right here.
HILLARD: There was the smell test.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It doesn't smell that bad.
KIRSTEN DONALD: It is incredibly important to get people involved at a young age.
HILLARD: Kirsten Donald is the center's education director.
DONALD: It's amazing what can happen when you see a child look at an animal that is hurting, that is emaciated. And it makes a big impact on them, and they realize, I can be a part of this and whether it be by turning this into a career or just talking to other people about it.
HILLARD: Most of the campers live near the beach and have witnessed the sea lion strandings over the years. Echo Koons is 8.
ECHO KOONS: And a half.
HILLARD: She says at one time, Koalas were her favorite.
ECHO: Yeah. It's now my - seals, any kind, are now my favorite animal. And I really like this camp, so I'm going to ask my mom to do it again and again and again.
HILLARD: Summer camp can be bittersweet, especially when it comes to saying goodbye to the friends you've met - all of them, says Jameson Ibe.
JAMESON: The same feeling as when they get released. I'm sad that they're not going to - I can't see them anymore and I can't, like, say hi eventually. But they should belong into the wild, so...
HILLARD: The last day of camp is a trip to the ocean. The human youngsters waded behind a rope as the four young and healthy sea lions waddled out of their crates, and then it was a quick dash or fast scamper to the ocean.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Freedom.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Freedom.
HILLARD: And then they jumped in the air in unison like dolphins.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: They were jumping with joy.
HILLARD: Of course. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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