Anyone who’s ever read the book, Pretzel, from the Curious George series knows it’s filled with teachable moments. However, you might be surprised to learn that a number of those moments are now taking place at an animal shelter in Baltimore. It’s all part of the Maryland SPCA’s Summer Reading Program where local children bring their favorite books to share with the dogs and cats that live there.
Do the animals follow along? Yes, in a manner of speaking.
On this particular day, ten kids showed up with their Moms and bookbags in tow. After a short orientation by Katie Flory, the organization’s Community Affairs Director, each was given a carpet square and allowed to pick which dog, cat, puppy or kitten they’d like to read to. (That alone would have stumped me since I promptly fell in love with every resident there, but the kids had no trouble honing in on their first reading partner.)
As far as shelters go, the Maryland SPCA is the animal version of Disneyland – complete with nurseries, kitty condos, plexi kennels, private exam rooms and kitty cities, but there’s still an ear-deafening decibel level when you enter the kennel area. It’s a wild chorus of happy barking, nervous barking and “pick me” barking, yet as the kids start to read, a discernable silence falls over the place. There’s something soothing about hearing, “Gerald is careful. Piggy is not” and two little Chihuahua siblings certainly agreed because they immediately settled in for the rest of “I’m a Frog.” And although the kids and pups are separated by a plexi panel, a few little hands do occasionally sneak away from the book they’re holding to stroke a grateful paw.
While there’s no doubt, the voices and the company are soothing to the animals, there’s also a a very tangible benefit to the kids. Nobody in this room judges their reading capability or admonishes them when they don’t pronounce a word correctly. Instead they’re greeted by wagging tails and purrs. And, by the way, for anyone who’s ever debated the merits of cats versus dogs, I can tell you kittens and puppies are tied for being the most voracious readers. In the nursery, multiple cages of young ones were spellbound by the book “Should I share my ice cream?” So convincing was their interest, the little girl proceeded to show them photos so they could better follow along.
One volunteer confided, “I’ve actually seen animals fall asleep during the reading hour.” Not two minutes later, we both turned around to see Forest and Billy Bob totally sacked out while listening to Captain Underpants.
Nobody wanted it to end, but like all good things, the hour did finally come to a close. But to lessen the disappointment, the group was given a behind-the-scenes tour of the shelter which culminated in a very special treat – the chance to hold, cuddle and stroke a tiny seven-week old kitten named Princess who purred the entire time.
The Maryland SPCA is one of three local shelters that has a children’s reading program in place. Baltimore Humane Society began doing it a few years ago and BARCS recently launched their own version, with the Humane Society of Harford County now in the final planning stages. Certainly it’s a win/win for all involved. The kids gain confidence in their reading skills, the animals thrive on the interaction and families – who otherwise might never venture into a shelter – are suddenly introduced to the world of rescue and adoption. A point made abundantly clear when one of the mothers decided, on the spot, to apply to become a foster.
We’ve always believed that humane education is an integral piece to ending the abuse that so many animals currently suffer, but had no idea reading could be such a powerful component. This is one storybook tale we’d love to see replicated everywhere.