Pets Lifeline teaches literacy through animals

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by Emily Charrier, courtesy of Sonoma Index-Tribune

The ding of the bell signals the class at Sassarini Elementary School (AZ) that it’s time to head to the library. There’s a cacophony of excitable chatter as the kids enter, swinging backpacks, schlepping books and generally bouncing around. But as soon as the youth sees the little purple stroller, they lower their voices and their boisterous energy falls into a hushed calm.

One by one, almost as if they were in a receiving line at a wedding, the students parade past the stroller, offering their greetings to Leo. Born with a cerebral condition that limits his mobility, Leo is lucky to be alive. The 1.5 year old black cat was in a kill shelter in San Bruno before he was adopted by Mary Green, the founder of Pets Lifeline’s Humane Education program.

“He’s perfect for kids because he doesn’t freak out,” Green said of Leo. “He stays calm and they can pet him.”

Fourth-grader Jacob Gutierrez, 9, grabs a book off the shelf and plunks down next to Leo. He flips to the opening page, and begins to read. Aside from giving Leo an occasional pet, he doesn’t stop until he reaches the end of the book, down to the glossary.  “Thanks for listening, Leo,” Gutierrez said before patting Leo on the head and running off to sit with a friend.

“Education is a lot of smoke and mirrors,” joked Danielle Smith, the humane educator Pets Lifeline has recently stationed at Sassarini. “Really, we’re teaching reading, we’re teaching writing and, most importantly, we’re teaching kindness. Animals are just the hook.”

This is the first year of Love of Learning, the Pets Lifeline pilot program based out of Sassarini. Smith, a former preschool teacher, is on campus four days a week to coordinate reading and writing programs that help build students’ literacy skills. She’s usually accompanied by her own therapy cat, but Dewey, the school’s “library cat,” recently died. Smith is now looking for a new rescue feline that can stay calm around the big energy of little students.

“You need the right cat for this,” she laughed.
All students on campus get a chance to interact with the animals and humane educators, but the program focuses on those who need extra help with their reading. Numerous academic studies have touted the benefit of using animals to teach reading. As they learn, many students can be embarrassed or anxious to read out loud, but the animals never judge their mistakes. The critters help foster a soothing environment that makes kids comfortable and engaged while learning.

“It does two specific things,” said Nancy King, executive director of Pets Lifeline. “It teaches children compassion for living things. At the same time, animals are a great teaching tool and the kids forget they’re learning.”

Green regularly brings Leo on campus, but also splits her time between the school district’s other elementary schools. Whenever a teacher requests a humane educator, Green is the one who answers the call. As a certified reading specialist, she has seen first-hand how animals can inspire children to learn.

“I have an animal with me everywhere I go,” Green said. “I’m like the Pied Piper when I get to campus, (the children) just flock to us. Every kid who tries it wants to come back for more.”

Writing is also a critical piece of the students’ education. They not only write biographies about the shelter animals, which are read by potential adopters, but they’re encouraged to write letters to the cats.

“The cat writes back to them, and they become pen pals,” King said. “The letters from the cat always encourages reading.”

This also allows the educators to frame lessons through a compassionate lens. They hope to inspire students to consider all living creatures and, so far, it seems to be working. Smith recently taught the students about earthworms, after kids found some wriggling on the pavement during the recent rain.
“At first, they were like ‘Ew, worms are gross’,” Smith said, adding that she then explained the insects role in the wider ecosystem. “Now, when they’re outside, they’re telling other kids, ‘Don’t step on the worms! They need to breathe!’”
The animals also provide solace for the students. When a child is acting out or upset, they are often invited to go pet the cat in the library.  “Especially with students this young, they’re still learning to speak about their feelings,” said Sassarini principal Andrew Ryan. “This has become a place they can go to reset. It’s a calming environment.”

Love of Learning is Pets Lifeline’s first attempt to make humane education a part of the students’ every day. Founded in 2005 as a summer camp at the shelter, the program has grown to include classroom visits, after school programs, summer school classes and now a permanent home at Sassarini, with a full-time staff member in Smith, who is funded by Pets Lifeline. The program has received grants from First 5 California and the Rose Marie Piper Foundation, but the shelter has also committed about $50,000 of its own funds to the effort.

“Pets Lifeline has added a line item to cover these programs regardless of whether there is grant funds,” Fountaine said. To date, more than 1,000 Sonoma Valley students have received humane education, either in school, at the Boys & Girls Club or at the shelter.

Pets Lifeline is working to raise the $3.5 million needed to build a new facility, which would allow them to help more animals as well as expand the Humane Education program. They will have dedicated classroom space that will allow the shelter to host more camps and summer school programs.

“I have to mention that we are seeking program sponsors,” King plugged. “It’s a chance to help grow the program with naming rights.”