Agnès Barrelet stands with ostrich at the Children’s Nature Retreat in Alpine. Courtesy photo

Years ago, France native turned San Diegan Agnès Barrelet spent about a month in West Africa where she assisted in the development of a scholarship program for children. She said while she was there she learned that Western countries were missing something that African children were not: A true experience with nature and the animals that roam in it.

Barrelet is the executive director of the Children’s Nature Retreat, a nonprofit that opened to the public in 2017, making wildlife accessible to San Diego residents. The organization, which is located in Alpine, is home to more than 100 animals of 22 different species.

“My love for animals, children and the movie ‘We Bought a Zoo’ sparked the idea of creating the retreat,” Barrelet said. “In Africa, children need access to school. In San Diego, they need access to animals and nature.”

Barrelet said her “zoo” began with just a few animals in November 2015, prior to it opening to the public. From there it grew with donations of all kind of herbivores, zebras, camels and goats.

“If an individual needed to find a home for his or her pets, we were accepting them,” Barrelet said. “We want our animals to be in the best place possible. If we believe we cannot be the best option for them, we do not accept them. We will not accept carnivores.”

So far, the more than 100 animals have given visitors an experience of a lifetime.

“When you visit, you can feed our animals, touch them on their own terms,” Barrelet said. “They have huge enclosures and if they decide not to see you, they can. The result is when you interact with them, you have the best encounter possible with an animal that wants to be with you. They are not forced to do anything and they are close enough, you can connect.”

Although the retreat has temporarily closed to the public as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, Barrelet said she plans to continue to provide an educational experience unlike any other to children and their families. The retreat is also hosting educational classes online during the stay-at-home order.

Prior to the statewide shutdown, the retreat hosted more than 4,000 students and 11,000 guests annually.

For now, Barrelet said the retreat will need financial support from the public to maintain the care for their animals.

For more information about the Children’s Nature Retreat, go to childrensnatureretreat.org.

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