Getting kids to read can be difficult, considering potential distractions such as video games, digital devices, TV, sports, and other activities. Adding animals to the mix via shelter-pet reading programs is one creative way teachers and parents have found to introduce children to the joy of reading. These typically involve school kids reading to dogs, but Good Mews, a no-kill, cage-free cat shelter in Marietta, Georgia, recently launched Reading With Cats. This program brings in small groups of children for one-on-one reading sessions with some of the shelter’s 100 adoptable kitties.
“We’ve started bringing in groups of readers, and the cats just love it,” explained Nancy Riley, Good Mews marketing committee chair. “They pay attention like they’re listening, understanding, and following the stories – it’s crazy.”
Riley said Good Mews had a pilot program last year but didn’t have room in its former space.
Four Girl Scout and Boy Scout groups have participated so far, with more groups on the way, said Riley. In addition, Good Mews plans to expand to local school groups and offer a summer reading program this year.
On a recent Sunday, Good Mews community outreach chair Lisa Bass briefed a group of sweet-faced Cub Scouts about good kitty etiquette, including how to properly greet and pet the cats, read their body language, and know when to give them space. Riley, meanwhile, led my photographer husband Chris and me into the main room of the bright and airy shelter, where about 60 felines wandered around, lounged in kitty trees, or slept in cozy beds. (Chris is terribly allergic to cats, so he appreciated their cuteness from behind his camera.) It was great to see so many happy, healthy cats in such a cheery, clean facility.
Bass and Riley, in the company of the Cub Scouts, their leaders, and parents, paired off cats and boys in the shelter’s special-needs suites, where kitties with health, diet, and socialization issues are housed. As the boys got down on the floor with their books and began reading, the din of excited voices quickly lowered to a gentle hum.
As we observed the sweet interactions during the hour-long session, Riley said such reading programs benefit the kids, the animals, and the shelter. They help children learn to enjoy reading, develop literacy skills, and build confidence in a safe, comfortable and non-judgmental environment. They also teach the importance of animal welfare, empathy, and community service. After all, it’s pretty difficult to feel stressed or shy about reading aloud when a sweet kitty is rubbing against you or climbing in your lap.
“How often do kids get really excited about reading?” asked Riley. “But to sit down with a book with a bunch of cats around them changes the whole scenario — they want to sit there and read. We have them read out loud, so they’re practicing, learning words and storytelling. It’s great for them, and the parents and teachers really love it.”
The extra attention and socialization the cats receive promotes their well-being as they wait to be adopted. The cats at Good Mews are lucky in that they receive regular attention from some 350 volunteers, yet they typically don’t get enough exposure to kids. So for the shelter, Reading With Cats is a great way to fill that gap, Riley explained.
“Our volunteers are primarily adults, but we want the cats to be exposed to kids, because if they’re going to get adopted into homes with children, it’s important for them to have been around them and understand how they act,” she said.
As Chris and I observed the adorable exchanges — kitties climbing in and out of the boys’ laps, walking in circles around them, rubbing up against them, or just lying nearby and “listening” to the stories — we could see the Cub Scouts were truly enjoying their first Good Mews reading session.
When I asked 9-year-old Karim Thabet what he thought about reading to Estevez, a chubby tiger cat lying quietly by his side, his face lit up.
“I want to do this every day!” he exclaimed.
Whether through reading to shelter pets or just spending quality time with them, interacting with animals can be therapeutic for all people. So in keeping with its effort to educate, involve, and benefit the community, Good Mews also hosts groups of senior citizens from assisted living and memory care facilities.
“We host these groups about twice a month and have plans to expand them, too,” Riley said. “A lot of the folks are in wheelchairs, so they’ll just sit, let the cats get in their laps, and have some good petting time – it’s really sweet to watch.”
Asked his thoughts on the Good Mews’ reading program, pack leader Ken Adamson said he was already looking forward to bringing the boys back for another visit, or even a special project.
“It’s always a positive to get my scouts reading for any reason whatsoever, so reading to cats is a wonderful opportunity,” said Adamson, a fan of Good Mews who has adopted from the shelter. “As long as my son, Alex, is in the troop, we’ll be coming back, because any opportunity to get him to read is really great. If they had ‘Playing Videogames with Cats,’ he’d do it every weekend, but I’m not sure the cats would enjoy that very much.”
For more information about the shelter, including how to adopt a cat, visit the Good Mews website.
About the author: A devoted dog mom, journalist, and animal activist, Lisa uses her writing to spread awareness about animal welfare and cruelty issues. She lives in Atlanta with two spoiled German Shepherds, one entitled Pug, and a very understanding husband. Read more of her work at her blog and website, and follow her on Twitter