There comes a moment during Mitra De Souza’s class on animal welfare when she can tell by the faces of her Trinidadian elementary school students that they have grasped the concept of spay and neuter. It happens during the “overpopulation activity,” when she holds up a poster board “animal shelter” filled with pink and blue paper puppies.
One student is allowed to “adopt” two pups—one blue and one pink. But, because these paper dogs have not been sterilized, De Souza quickly gives this same student four more puppies, asking him or her to find good homes for them among the classmates. That’s easy at first, because every child wants to adopt a puppy. Then De Souza tells the class that each household is limited to only one dog. As the students scramble to redistribute the new litters, De Souza keeps doling out four new puppies to every student with a pink “puppy.” As in real life, the homes fill up rapidly, but the paper puppies keep coming.
“It’s like a light bulb goes off, and they realize there are many more puppies than homes; they start worrying about what is going to happen to them,” says De Souza, coordinator for Animal Welfare Network’s Primary School Education Program. “I will have told them about spaying and neutering their pets earlier in the program, but this is when they really understand what it means. When I ask them if something could have been done to prevent this puppy explosion—every hand goes up.”
This is also the point at which many of these young people become animal welfare ambassadors within their families, schools and communities. After De Souza taught the class at Tacarigua Presbyterian Primary School, Vice Principal Deryck Kistow recalls that one nine-year-old girl started making her own paper cutouts and doing the game with her friends, while another lectured his mother about spay and neuter for a month straight.
“They spoke a lot to their friends in other classes about the overpopulation activity, and also about what types of things stray animals need,” says Kistow. “They want Mitra to return and they want us to start a group to raise funds to help buy food for strays.”
The Animal Welfare Network (AWN), a nonprofit dedicated to reducing pet overpopulation and promoting responsible pet ownership in Trinidad and Tobago, launched its education program in November 2012 with the blessing of the Ministry of Education. The program has since been presented to more than 1,000 five- to 12-year-olds at nine schools ranging from private academies to public schools in low-income neighborhoods throughout Trinidad. There are plans to take the program to the neighboring island of Tobago.
Schools can chose from three options: a 30-minute assembly that includes a visit by a trained shelter dog and certified handler; a 30- to 45-minute classroom presentation customized for three different age groups (ages 5 to 7, 8 to 10, and 11 to 12); and the simple distribution of educational materials. (These materials are also provided for options one and two.)
The presentation for the youngest children focuses on how animals feel, while the two older groups learn about the issues of overpopulation. In some sessions, there are role-playing exercises in which a student might pretend to be a dog chained outside in the hot sun, or one who has fleas. There are also guided discussions about understanding the needs and feelings of animals. Students are encouraged to think about what it means to treat stray dogs with kindness and dignity.
Most sessions end with tips on how to safely approach strange dogs and how to protect against aggressive ones. As a special treat, adopted mutt Clio often puts in an appearance to demonstrate her obedience training and let the students practice their new skills. Each child goes home with a coloring/activity booklet and a note for parents that debunks myths about spay and neuter. (Intact males do not make better guard dogs; spayed female dogs are not destined to become fat.)