A sad fact of life is that some shelter cats are so scared and undersocialized that they just don’t get a chance at adoption. The cute ones, the kittens, the perky ones and the ones who purr are picked first, and the skittish ones are looked over. The Berks Animal Rescue League is changing that one cat at a time — and enriching the lives of children in its community at the same time.
Just a few minutes outside of Reading, Pennsylvania, the Berks ARL is a 10-acre facility that cares for more than 175 animals a day, both dogs and cats. They’ve got a clinic on-site and a state-of-the-art surgical suite for animals entering the facility who are in less than stellar condition. But these aren’t the things that the Berks County ARL is becoming known for — it’s the Book Buddies Program.
In August 2013, Program Director Kristi Rodriguez noticed her 10-year-old son Sean was having trouble with his reading skills. Being a problem solver, Rodriguez did what came naturally — she brought her son to the ARL to read to the cats. “If he liked it, other kids would like it,” commented Beth Ireland, the marketing and communications director for the League, via a phone interview.
“Any interaction you can provide with shelter animals enriches their lives,” said Ireland. “It’s a win-win situation for the cats and kids.” The kids get to practice their reading skills in a low-pressure environment without the fear of criticism or the ridicule of their peers while the cats get to spend some much-needed quality time with a human buddy. “The reading encourages happy cats, which equals cats who are able to catch an adopter’s attention. It’s vital,” she explains.
Participants range from grades one through eight and are rewarded with tickets they can exchange for prizes after reading five books to the cats. The kids can also opt to hold onto their tickets and instead enter a monthly drawing for larger prizes. But really, the kids are getting much more out of this than prizes: They’re getting a chance to hone their reading skills and their compassion when they read to shelter cats.
When asked if there were any problems running the program, Ireland could hardly suppress a laugh. “It’s a cinch to run,” she said. “We have everything it involves. We have the cats, we have a small little library of books. All it requires is a parent to bring their child in. It’s quite easy to run.”
Other shelters across the nation are following the Berks Animal Rescue League’s lead. Ireland said that since the story went viral, they’ve received calls from “hundreds” of shelters looking to implement similar programs.
The program doesn’t just serve individual children or local students. According to the League’s website, the program is used by home-schooled children, Girl Scout Brownie troops, parents who want their children to gain more exposure to animals and autistic children who might be in need of some tactile therapy, among others.
This program is a great idea for large and small shelters alike. It requires a safe, quiet room where children and a cat or two (or more!) can sit down together and socialize. And if cost is a concern, which it is for many shelters across the world, age-appropriate books can be had for pennies at a library sale or yard sales, or free through grass-roots giveaway programs like Freecycle. The biggest obstacle for smaller shelters might be finding the space, but that shouldn’t dissuade smaller shelters from implementing the idea. Any secure location where the cat can’t run away can serve double-duty as a reading room.
As for Sean Rodriguez, the pilot tester for the program? His reading skills have improved vastly and he now reads any chance he can — including to his dogs at home. Other kids have shared similar stories of success. Parent Kate Proyck writes on the ARL website: “I want to thank you for giving my son the opportunity to participate in a program such as this one. I believe it truly helps him not only to read, but to help the animals who do not have warm, loving homes, and that we must help speak up for the critters who do not have a voice.”
Visit the Book Buddies program at The Berks Animal Rescue League.
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About Caitlin Seida: Owned by three cats and two dogs, she never met an animal she didn’t like. A Jill-of-All-Trades, she splits her workday as a writer, humane society advocate and on-call vet tech. What little free time she has goes into pinup modeling, advocating for self-acceptance, knitting and trying to maintain her haunted house (really!).