Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Animal Safety

I'm full swing for education this time of year. April and May are when all of the scouts want to schedule tours, when schools hold their "High Interest Day" or "Try It Day", and when teachers ask me to come in and do presentations for their students.

One of the presentations I do annually for the first graders of Lake Country Elementary School in Hartland is an animal safety program. This is actually a timely program to do at the end of the school year -- Waukesha County Humane Officers tell me that the incidence of dog bites goes up when summer vacation first begins. Dogs are used to the peace and quiet they get most days when the kids are in school, and the tend to be less tolerant when the kids are home more (the parents tell me they feel the same way!)

When I first took the job of Humane Educator 5 years ago I did research and did my presentations based on the animal safety material that is out there. The trend seems to be based on two things -- "May I Please Pet Your Dog" in which children are instructed to ask before they pet someone else's dog, and "Be a Tree" -- which instructs children to stay still, look away from the dog, and be quiet in case they encounter a stray dog.

I do use "May I Please Pet Your Dog". Kids are many times not aware that some dogs will be less than thrilled by their love, and it's another way of instilling polite behavior.

However, over a period of years I started to question the "Be a Tree" portion of the program. According to the website Dog Bite Law run by attorney Kenneth Phillips who is widely recognized as the nation's leading authority on dog bite law, "the vast majority of biting dogs (77%) belong to the victim's family or a friend."

Additionally, I started to notice when talking to kids who had been bitten by a dog that none of them had ever been bitten by a stray dog. The dog was almost always their own dog, or a dog that belonged to someone they knew.

As an educator I know that there is only a small amount of information that will be retained after I'm gone. I decided to focus on the information that was more relevant to keeping kids safe with dogs that they know.

My current presentation includes information about signals that animals give when they want to be left alone, times when children should leave animals alone (when eating, sleeping, chewing on a toy, etc.), and having respect for an animal who is running away from you - animals like their space too!

I also emphasize that dogs DO NOT like to be hugged. This is something that most adults don't know, and something that is very natural for children to do when they are feeling affectionate. Many children get bit in the fact when they go to hug a dog who really doesn't understand it's a friendly gesture. (For more information about this and other canine emotions read Patricia McConnell's book "For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend".) When one dog places his paw over the back of another dog it's actually a status seeking behavior -- and so some dogs may not appreciate a child seeking higher status. Many dogs also do not like to be restrained -- and that's what's going on during a hug!

Mystic an I had fun the last two days at Lake Country Elementary School. The teachers were amazed at how well behaved and calm he was in the school -- especially in the hallway as most of the children were on their way to lunch. And the kids just loved him -- as you can see by the photos.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wow -- What a Week!

Last week was extremely busy.

It started on Monday with a 4-day mini-camp for children sent by an organization that works with families affected by domestic abuse. Our hope was that exposing the children to animals, teaching them ways to positively interact and communicate with them, and hopefully instilling empathy towards them we could help the children develop a way to overcome the damage they have experienced in their homes. There are very strong ties to how humans relate to animals and how that carries over in their social interactions with other people.

This was the second year we've done this particular program. Last year's group consisted of 5 children and they initially were afraid of the animals, lacked confidence, but were fairly well behaved. I realized that the groups would not be the same, but I would be lying if I said I was prepared for the behavior of the children last week.

Because we have to protect the identity of the children I have changed all of their names. Last Monday I met Keira -- 10 and a half years old, and her brothers 9-year old Terrell and 7 year old Taye. We also had brothers Jermaine -- age 8, and Jamal, aged 6. Finally there was 10 year old Andrew.

The week went something like this:

9am - the children get off the van transporting them and come into our Activity Room. Initially they are quiet while I get them name tags, introduce myself and my assistant and explain what we were going to do during the week. We talk about how to properly meet a dog, I bring out Mystic and several dogs from the back. So far so good.

10:30am. We have just finished a snack. The children start running around the room and playing tag. Knowing that kids have energy they need to expend and because the weather was so cold and damp outside I decide to let them.

10:45am. I decide to move on to the next activity and call for the children to come and sit down. They ignore me. I approach several of the kids and directly ask them to go sit down. They do so. As I'm approaching the other children the two who were sitting get up and start running around again. I continue to request that they stop their horseplay and sit on the floor. They continue to ignore me.

11:00am. We finally get the children sitting and start an activity. They pay attention for about 2 minutes before they start talking amongst themselves. One of the kids shoves one of the other kids. That kid hits in retaliation. I tell them both that is inappropriate behavior. We continue on with the activity with only some of the kids paying attention some of the time.

After lunch. I put in a video for the kids to watch and tell them they need to be quiet for 45 minutes. They ignore me and get up and run around. I get them back sitting down and then others get up and run around. The two littlest, Taye and Jamal, start climbing on the tables we have stored in racks. I tell them several times that they cannot climb on the tables and to get down. After the third time I put both of them in seperate corners for time outs.

In the meantime two of the other kids are hitting and kicking each other. I get them apart and put them in time-outs in two other corners. One of the kids starts to kick his foot against the wall. I tell him he just earned another minute in time out for that. Jamal gets up before his time out is over and I replace him and tell him his time-out starts from the beginning.

I was greatly relieved to see my assistant come back to work as I was terrified that she would call in sick for the rest of the week.

The children come into the activity room at 9am and immediately start running around and chasing each other. Taye and Jamal climb on the tables and I put both of them into time-outs. After 15 minutes I'm able to get the kids calmed down and sitting and quiet so that I can bring out animals.

Tuesday goes much like Monday with many times outs and a lot of hitting, kicking and shoving on the part of the children. Near the end of the day Andrew and Jermaine start to argue and I can see it escalating. They are tense with fists clenched, standing about a foot from each other making direct eye contact. I make my way over there, but am too late to prevent them from beginning a phyical fight. I step in between them and push them away from each other.

At this point it is almost time for the children to leave. Earlier in the day the children had asked permission to take off their shoes, and I had given it. I now ask the children to get their shoes on before they walk outside to get on the van. Some of the children put on their shoes. Others are busy horsing around with each other and don't do so until I repeatedly approach them and tell them they need to do so. Andrew, however, refuses to put his shoes on.

The rest of the children are ready to go, and I tell my assistant to escort them out to the van. I ask Andrew several times to put on his shoes, and he refuses. I get his shoes, hold them out to him and tell him he cannot go outside in his stocking feet and he needs to put his shoes on. He knocks the shoes out of my hands. I threaten to call his mother. He says he doesn't care. I go and get my phone and start to dial. He puts on his shoes.

Andrew and I walk out to the van, his whole body stiff and a scowl on his face. I see that he is safely on the van and I go back inside.

Andrew is not with the children when they arrive and they tell me that he was "expelled" because he started a fight on the bus. I later find out that the real story was that he and Jermaine started to argue again on the bus and Andrew and Jermaine started to hit each other. Subsequently the other children joined in -- taking Jermaine's side, and started to hit Andrew.

Most of Wednesday is better than Monday or Tuesday. The kids are listening better and Taye and Jamal only get a few time-outs.

Earlier in the week Keira had expressed horror at the fact that we spay and neuter animals. She claimed that we were "mean to take away their natural freedoms". I had tried to explain to her over-population and why we do it, but she was unconvinced.

I bring out the "Cats, Cats and More Cats" activity. Some of the children were impressed with how many kittens can be produced in one year from one female cat, and I hope I made an impact on them. I note that Keira is paying attention and I think she is starting to get the message.

Mid-afternoon I decide the children should go outside to play and ask that they get their shoes on. All but Terrell get their shoes on. I see Taye shove his brother, and I head over there to tell him he needs to go into a time-out. Before I get there Terrell retaliates by knocking him down, grabbing him by the leg and dragging him outside. I see that Taye's shirt is lifting up and his skin is being dragged across asphalt. I drag Terrell inside and tell my assistant to stay outside with the other kids while I deal with Terrell.

I tell Terrell he needs to sit in a time-out for 5 minutes. He objects saying that Taye started it by shoving him. I tell him I saw Taye do that and that before he dragged Taye I had planned to take care of it -- that it's not his job to punish Taye -- as the adult it's my job to deal with it. Again I tell Terrell to sit down for a 5-minute time-out. Terrell grabs a folding metal chair and throws it across the room and then kicks the chair rack. I again tell him to sit down. He refuses.

I call Terrell's mother and explain what is going on. I hand the phone to Terrell and he says nothing for a few minutes -- I hear the muffled sounds of his mother before he hands the phone back to me. Terrell's mother tells me to call her again if I have any other problems with him, and she will come get him. I don't have any other problems with Terrell for the rest of the day.

I am amazed when guest speakers come in with their turtles and talk about them and what kinds of pets they make. The children are for the most part very attentive, quiet and interested. They follow directions. Taye is tired and leans against me as he listens. I bring my arm around his little body and am amazed at how sweet he is being.

That same afternoon I have a chance to talk to Keira again. She brings up the fact that spaying and neutering is mean, so I ask her why she thinks so when animals have so many unwanted babies. Keira tells me that "all you have to do is keep them apart". I explain that it's not that simple -- pet owners aren't always responsible enough to do that. I talk about all the diseases that can be prevented by spay and neuter and how the surgery can make pets live longer. I hope that she has absorbed some of this and will eventually understand.

This is our last day of the program, but only Andrew, Terrell and Taye show up. Keira, Jermaine and Jamal had other plans. I breathe a sigh of relief -- three children will be much easier than 5 or 6!

It turns out to actually be a very fun day. The kids are for the most part very well behaved and listen to directions. At one point I have to prepare lunch and ask my assistant to take the kids out to play. Taye begs to stay with me, but I tell him he has to go outside. He bursts into tears and clings to me leg. It is very sweet -- despite all the time-outs Taye has formed a bond with me.

Terrell also seems to have formed a bond with me. He begs to come back on Friday. When I tell him we will be having an Open-House that day and it is for adults he says that he could help me with it. He asks several times

After reading the above you might think that I had wasted a week with these ill-behaved children.

Unfortunately these kids are a product of what they see in their home. Frustration tolerance does not exist and frustration is dealt with by acting out. Conflict is resolved though hitting, shoving and kicking.

Though it was extremely difficult and challanging to work with these kids, I saw so much potential in them. So far I've mostly reported the negative, but I really saw them express a lot of empathy and caring.

Andrew in particular seemed to want to care for the other kids when their feelings were hurt. If one of the other children were crying Andrew would go over, put his arm around the child and try to comfort himm.

At one point I also saw him get very distressed when he saw a picture of a cat. When I asked him why he told me that it looked like a cat he used to have that had died. Earlier one of his relatives told me that Andrew had seen his father abuse the family pets and that Andrew tried to save them by releasing them outside. It made me wonder if Andrew had seen his father kill the cat he was upset about.

Keira, while misguided about spay and neuter, was still concerned about how the animals were impacted by the procedure.

Terrell, despite his temper tantrum and belligerence, had an extremely soft side to him. When I think of Terrell I think of him sitting by Mystics side, looking at him with reverence and slowly petting him. He would do this for many minutes on end, and it would be difficult to get him away from Mystic to go on to other activities.

Taye also had a very soft side to him. At one point we brought out 3-week old kittens. All of the children were very quiet and respectful of these fragile babies. I remember Taye cuddling a very small kitten in his shirt while gently petting it.

I got to know Jermaine and Jamal quite a bit better than the other children (other than Andrew) since they were there the last day and there were only three children. Jermaine had a good sense of humor and a wonderful smile that could light up a room. His favorite animal was a rabbit named Hop-a-Long.

Jamal told me that he was afraid of animals when he first came to HAWS because he was afraid they would scratch and bite him, but he isn't afraid any more.

It is my belief that despite the turmoil, chaos and violence in their lives the children can overcome it. I hope that their experience at HAWS will make a difference in how they develop as people. All of the children will be offered a scholarship to attend our summer camp. I hope they can come -- not only because I truly would like to see them again, but because I believe that continued exposure to animals and humane education will help them to grow as human beings.

The drawings were done by the children on the last day. Andrew drew a picture of me walking Mystic. Jermaine's picture was a thank you note, and he references Hop-a-long -- the rabbit he enjoyed spending time with. And the last picture was done by Jamal -- that's a portrait of Mystic and myself.

HAWS is invested in changing the lives of children through their experiences with animals. As a non-profit it can be a challange to find funding for such programs, and we truly appreciate money donated for our education programs. Go to our camp sponsor page to find out how to make a financial contribution that will allow us to give children such as Keira, Terrell, Taye, Jermain, Jamal and Andrew a camp scholarship.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Good Friday Visit

It always amazes me to realize that there are those out there who aren't animal lovers, and others who don't feel they have any value to people. Luckily science is on our side.

Studies show that contact with pets can decrease blood pressure and cholesterol levels (Allen, K 2001 & Anderson 1992). Alzheimers patients who have regular contact with pets have "fewer episodes of verbal aggression and anxiety and fewer mood disorders". (Fritz, Farver, Kass & Hart, 1995)

Today HAWS had a visit from some of the residents of Congregational Home in Brookfield. Accompied by three staff members, the ladies toured our dog and cat adoption areas, and then spent some one on one time with several animals.

It was very rewarding to see how much joy the animals were able to give -- and we didn't need science for that observation. I think the photos speak for themselves!

In the photo above is HAWS adoptable Griffin -- 5 years old and doing a wonderful job being handed from person to person.

Little Shelly (to the right) -- our chihuahua-dachshund mix was a huge lover -- giving kisses and getting love from everyone.

I was proudest of Mystic - who truly was the hit of the visit. He's a big dog, and yet was extremely gentle with our visitors who needed a gentle touch.

After petting him the first time, the woman on the right in the photo below asked that he come back so that she could pet him some more. One of the staff who came from Congregational Home told me that she is normally afraid of dogs. Mystic truly lives up to his name.

Monday, April 6, 2009

What to do About Millie?

Last week someone surrendered a capuchin monkey. Her owner had passed away, and as a result Millie was homeless.

Our staff, knowing nothing about capuchin monkeys, scrambled to find information on the internet so that we could make her stay here comfortable. Just by doing a google search on this species we found that there are many dealers that sell these animals as pets.

Doing my own research on wild capuchin monkeys I discovered that they spend their days searching for food high up in the trees of the forests of Central and South America. Very social, they tend to live in groups of 6 to 40 other capuchins, in territories of up to 200 acres.

While I'm sure Millie's former owner did the best he could; Millie lived in an enclosure that was 4 feet by 4 feet -- much, much smaller than her wild relatives with their 200 acres. We were told that seven years ago she became too aggressive to handle. So Millie was not allowed out of her cage -- not allowed direct contact with her owner or others, and I imagine she lived a very solitary and lonely life.

Unfortunately it is not illegal in many places to own exotic wild animals such as a capuchin monkey. For $7,000 you can purchase one to have in your house. Look on the web and you'll find many photographs of capuchins dressed up like little dolls in baby clothes.

Yes, they may be cute, and some owners might be regarded as "cool" for owning such an animal. But how happy is a wild animal when taken out of it's native environment and not allowed to live the life it was meant to live?

Millie's story has an ending -- she was given to a sanctuary that takes in monkeys who no longer have a home. Unfortunately there are many of these animals that start out as pets, but then become homeless. We hope Millie can find a small amount of happiness during the last years of her life.