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.)
AWN developed the program by adapting some of the activities found in the Humane Education Guidebook of the Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania, and De Souza worked out the kinks by presenting it to different classrooms at her daughter’s school. A promotional video featuring two kids and a dog, posted on Facebook (see it at bit.ly/awnv1), helped get the word out to the island nation’s primary schools, and the section on safety has proven particularly helpful in marketing the program to school administrators. Current demand is so high that AWN is in the process of training at least two more facilitators.
For Sara Maynard, a founding member of AWN, the educational program has become a critical component of the organization’s overall mission to promote spay and neuter. Like so many of its Caribbean neighbors, Trinidad has a terrible problem with animal overpopulation and abandonment. Maynard believes that children have a critical role to play in addressing these issues— adults are more receptive to the concept of animal welfare, particularly the spay/ neuter message, if it comes from their kids. “If you teach the kids, you’re teaching the parents,” she says. “Our goal is to follow up the educational course by holding a free spay/neuter clinic in a MASH tent in the same community.”
A pilot program intended to make this goal a reality is already planned for the low-income town of Cocorite, west of Trinidad and Tobago’s capital city, Port of Spain. The regular educational program will be presented to students at the local school. Then, the entire community will be invited to attend a presentation on responsible pet ownership and watch a video on the importance of spay and neuter. As an attendance incentive, there will be plenty of pet supplies and pet food giveaways, and a certified dog trainer will be on hand to answer questions. AWN will also distribute vouchers for free or low-cost spay/neuter procedures. In Trinidad and Tobago, the cost of a single spay can equal one week’s salary, so the organization has worked hard to forge good relationships with local vets to ensure reasonable rates.
Given the effectiveness of the Primary School Education Program, these vets are likely to have plenty of clients for decades to come. To test the program’s effectiveness, AWN recently conducted a follow-up assessment of student attitudes toward animals. Before participating in the program, students scored an average of 78 out of 104 on an animalwelfare scale. Four months after they took the class, the same students scored an average of 87, indicating that the program had not only changed attitudes, but also, that the attitudinal changes were holding steady.
That’s great news for adult animal lovers like Tiffany Llanos, who teaches at Dunross Preparatory School. After inviting De Souza to her classroom, Llanos said, “It warms my heart to know that perhaps the next generation will be equipped to help and be more sensitive and compassionate towards homeless animals in our community.”