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San Diego
Thursday, May 30, 2024

Helen Woodward Animal Center Building New Education Area

The Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe is building a new education center to share the joy of connecting with the many creatures that share our planet, from hissing cockroaches to alpacas and horses.

Yes, hissing cockroaches will be among the attractions in the 10,000 square-foot center designed by Delawie architects based in Bay Park.

Michael Arms, president and CEO of the Helen Woodward Animal Center, said he’s no fan of the roaches, but kids love them, and Arms said this will be a place built with kids in mind.

“We know how important humane education is to have children understand that we share the Earth with animals and insects and what role they play on our planet,” Arms said. “We want to instill in them compassion, and how to help others, not only animals, but how to help their friends and siblings and things of that nature.”

The Name

The $7.5 million Sharon MacDonald Humane Education Village will have 10,000 square feet of indoor space with areas for a variety of animals to live and 20,000 square feet of outdoor space that will include playgrounds and an area for children and adults to interact with the animals – llamas, goats, rabbits, guinea pigs, snakes, birds and insects.

The Helen Woodward Center has raised about two-thirds of the money to pay for the education center, Arms said, and is hoping to attract a few corporate donors.

“We just think some parts of corporate American would be happy to enhance the quality of life for children,” Arms said.

The center is named after Sharon MacDonald, a philanthropist who donated $2 million for the project.

Groundbreaking is scheduled for September with construction expected to take a year, said Paul Schroeder, Delawie principal.

Themed Classrooms

For parents who might be a little skeptical about hissing cockroaches and snakes, Arms said there’s a side benefit.

“We’ve had parents tell us straight out that after they come home, their children are not only kinder with their animals but kinder with their siblings,” Arms said.

The center has been using trailers for its education center.

Arms estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 people will go through the new center annually.

Each of the six classrooms in the education center will have a different theme, Schroeder said, with the classrooms divided into either side of the building connected by open walkways.

The Ocean Room, for example will have programs focusing on fish and sea life.

Other rooms, such as the jungle and woodlands, will focus on animals specific to those parts of the planet, Schroeder said.

“They wanted the kids to have these really unique and fine experiences and not feel like they’re in a traditional classroom,” Schroeder said. “They don’t have any traditional tables and chairs.”

Although some of the details are still being worked out, the overriding theme of the design was to make the center “fun and interactive and whimsical for the kid and accessible to everybody of all ages,” Schroder.

The whimsy starts in the lobby, which is designed to look like a giant tree with seating inside the tree trunk.

“Then they’ll have some little peekaboo windows that look from the inside to the outside,” Schroeder said. “When you walk into the lobby, it’s going to be great fun.”

Two playgrounds are planned for the exterior, also built around kid-friendly themes.

A 2,700 square-foot playground for children aged 7 to 14 “is probably going to be about pollinators and our smaller bees, butterflies and humming birds,” Schroeder said. “It will have large pieces that kids can kind of climb on, not necessarily your traditional play structures.”

A 1,200 square-foot playground for younger children will likely be a San Diego theme of some sort.

“We haven’t fully decided but I think we’re going toward a theme about the different types of plants, local plants and animals,” Schroeder said.

The new center also will include two birthday party rooms, animal enclosures that are part of the children’s environment in the classrooms allowing them to bring the themes to life, a large kitchen, separate rest rooms for adults and children and storage areas for holiday decorations.


With a staff of 170, the Helen Woodward Animal Center has made it through the pandemic without furloughing or laying off any of its workers, Arms said.

“We were able to do this because we do have a very generous giving community and even during these hard times, people found a way to give $5 or $10 to make sure we’re able to do the things we can do,” Arms said.

Partnering with Feeding San Diego, Helen Woodward Animal Center also gave away food baskets including pet food every two weeks, Arms said.

“When these families came in to pick up pet food, they’d get two weeks of human food,” Arms said.


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