The Kuerner brothers, John, 4, and Will, 6, had fun last summer gathering branches and leaves for bird nests, touching real bird feathers and gathering nuts and berries for wildlife, all as part of a Backyard Buddies program at PAWS in Seattle.

But the experience wasn't just fun; it was also meant to teach the kids about respecting animals and treating them humanely.

While shelters have offered children and teens general humane education for about 50 years, in the past few decades, more programs like PAWS' have been popping up, teaching children or teens through special summer events, camps or volunteering. Many parents and shelter staff say the programs help nurture a better sense of responsibility and compassion for animals.

"I think my kids really only see these animals from afar, so it was able to make it more real for them by literally bringing things closer to them," said Sarah Kuerner, the boys' mom. "It's something they can understand now. It really helps connect the dots."

Last summer, Lucas and John Fonseca, 8 and 10 years old, respectively, got to meet a bearded dragon.

"They look really cool and when I held it, it just was supercalm," said John, who now has one of the lizards as a pet.

John and Lucas love hanging out with dogs, cats and bunnies, but for their mom, Angie Fonseca, learning to respect and treat animals humanely was an even better reason she enrolled her sons in Animal Adventure Camp, a program for 5- to-13-year-olds at the San Diego Humane Society. Fonseca is a former humane society employee who continues to volunteer.

Lucas and John learned to ask permission to pet a dog, read its body language and stroke it gently on the back. They also learned to interact safely and gently with small mammals.

"We're really trying to teach those kids, especially that caring for animals goes beyond the basics of food, shelter and water, and that spending time with them and giving them enrichment is also important," said Amelia Curtis, education manager at the San Diego Humane Society.

The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago started a half-day program called The Pact in 2009, in which children learn about the responsibilities related to caring for domesticated pets. They also put on the play "Androcles and the Lion," the folk tale about the slave who removes a thorn from the lion's paw. The animal shelter also has a vet mentoring program for teens as well as programs for kids of all ages to read to cats, feed rabbits and guinea pigs, and make pet toys.

"You realize how much love and care go into the animals here," said Brenda Castillo, 16, of Chicago, who attended a caretaking program in August.

During that program, teens helped stock food and litter supplies in cages and clean an office where a bunny, her babies and a dove were living while awaiting adoption.

At PAWS Chicago, 12- to 17-year-olds volunteer on weekends with their parents, greeting visitors, cleaning and stocking cages, and playing with pets in the Family Service program, which began in 2008.