A typical day at Extreme Adventure Summer Camp in Spokane, Washington could involve learning Torah, riding in a helicopter, going scuba diving, and interacting with a kangaroo, monkey or tiger. Eitan Staples, a third-generation zoologist who founded the camp, wanted to start a summer camp where he could live out his childhood dreams, without turning anyone away because of finances.
“It’s all the stuff I wanted to do as a kid but couldn’t afford,” he said, in an interview with the Journal. “I thought I needed to create an environment where nobody is turned away for any reason.”
A religious Jew who comes from a Sephardic background, Staples began his career as a magician in Los Angeles and performed at The Magic Castle. When he met Siegfried and Roy, he realized he wanted to incorporate animals into his act.
A religious Jew who comes from a Sephardic background, Staples began his career as a magician in Los Angeles and performed at The Magic Castle.
“That didn’t last long,” he said. “The animals were my friends and I wanted them to be happy, so I changed my performance to be more educational. I really fell in love with the whole educational value of it.”
Staples took in abandoned animals and traveled around giving presentations and teaching about these creatures. He made it onto “The Tonight Show” and “The Today Show” and eventually decided that his animals needed to go into retirement. That’s when he opened Staples Safari Zoo and Extreme Adventure Summer Camp, which is for boys ages 13 to 18 and runs in two-week sessions throughout the summer.
Along with hanging out with animals like dogs, cockatoos, Katahdin sheep from Maine, a Scottish Highland bull, pot-bellied pigs, Capuchin monkeys from South America, African baboons, a black leopard and a tiger, the campers learn about the halachot relating to animals, from how to obtain chalav Yisrael milk to why it’s important to chase a chicken away from her nest before taking her eggs.
“All these kids recognize the passuk but now we get to do it in real life,” said Staples. “If we can take that extra step to be compassionate and kind to animals, how much does that make you more compassionate to humans?”
While some of the kids are initially scared of the animals at the beginning of camp, by the end of the session they’ve completely changed their tune.
“I want the kids to not be afraid of the animals but to find respect and joy in them,” said Staples.
Even though camper Elan Goldberg, 13, from LA likes animals, he did wonder about the tiger before he arrived at the camp last year. “I had a small fear of the tiger, but I knew it was not a roaming tiger and that if I kept my distance I would be safe,” he said. “It was quite cool to see the tiger up close like that. I’m going back this year.”
Along with the zoo, the camp has a synagogue, Spokane Sephardic Center, which hosts services every day and serves the Spokane community as well. There are also yeshiva learning rooms where the kids can study Torah.
The campers earn CPR and PADI scuba certification, hike in Mount Rainier National Park, identify local wildlife and birds and participate in activities like kayaking, water-tubing, horseback riding and ziplining.
“The whole focus is getting connected to HaShem through nature and really expressing kindness,” said Staples. “I want the kids to connect with animals and Torah where we aren’t wagging a finger at them or forcing them to sit in a yeshiva setting that they may not be familiar with. Rather, [I want] to get them engaged in activities they will become passionate about.”
“The whole focus is getting connected to HaShem through nature and really expressing kindness,” said Staples.
At Extreme Adventure Summer Camp, Staples emphasized just how easy it is to connect to the Almighty.
“You walk outside, look at the clouds, see the wildlife, reexamine your surroundings and recognize the hand of G-d you might have missed previously. We get back to nature and recognize everything comes from HaShem.”
Kylie Ora Lobell is a writer for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, The Forward, Tablet Magazine, Aish, and Chabad.org and the author of the first children’s book for the children of Jewish converts, “Jewish Just Like You.”