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GOOD TURNS

Giving Children Some Paws for Thought

Pet Orphans Fund, a nonprofit devoted to abandoned dogs and cats, teaches kids about animal etiquette and responsible ownership.

September 21, 2003|Stephanie Stassel | Times Staff Writer

All the children's eyes were on two life-size canine puppets used to show kids how to approach a strange dog.

"If you saw a dog in a car, should you throw food through the window?" asked Darlene Schwartz, holding Sebastian, a pretend golden retriever, in her arms.

"No," chorused the third-grade students at Bassett Street Elementary School in Van Nuys.

Segueing into the other topic of the day, responsible pet ownership, Schwartz then asked: "Should a dog even be left in a car? What do you think could happen?"

"Someone might steal him," answered one boy.

"He could start the car," offered another.

And finally: "He might dehydrate," said 9 year-old Robert Mejia.

By teaching kids the principles of responsible pet ownership, Pet Orphans Fund aims to reduce the number of animals that end up on the streets or in shelters. Or left in a hot car.

During the last 30 years, the nonprofit organization has rescued 20,000 adoptable dogs and cats from a likely death at public animal shelters. They are cared for at the organization's Van Nuys shelter by staff members and a host of volunteers until a suitable, carefully screened owner can be found. None of the animals is ever put to sleep.

"These are not bad animals, they have lived in homes," Executive Director Barbara Royce Extract said of the 60 to 80 dogs and 40 cats at the shelter at any given time. "A family moves or the animal gets sick. If it's a dog, it might be barking too much or nipping their daughter. These are easily curable things. People just don't want to take the time to work it out, so they dump them. The only way to curb this is through education."

As one of the city's oldest private animal shelters, Pet Orphans Fund's humane education program is expanding. A program launched a year ago takes educators, puppets and real dogs into the classroom to teach children age-appropriate information about pet ownership. The message is relayed to adults at service club meetings.

Though the curriculum is flexible, generally kindergarten through third-grade students learn about animal safety and showing empathy toward animals. Responsible pet ownership is generally taught to fourth- through ninth-grade students, with older children also learning how to choose the appropriate pet for each family or individual.

The program for 10th-grade students through adults typically focuses on the need for spaying and neutering to prevent pet overpopulation.

Calling the program progressive, Paul Jolly, president of the Los Angeles Animal Services Commission, said the group's focus "has gone from just adopting out animals to trying to solve the problem."

"This is the new way of thinking -- let's get to the children first," he added. "If we can teach them to grow up to be compassionate people toward animals, besides the animals benefiting, maybe the world wouldn't be such a bad place in the future."

The group hopes to work with the city of Los Angeles in its plan to stop euthanizing adoptable animals by 2008. The Animal Services Commission recently voted against using controversial temperament testing to determine which animals would be suitable for adoption and instead will seek advice from experts to develop "a fair and objective method to determine the future behavior of the animal in their future home," Jolly said.

Meanwhile, Pet Orphans Fund is pushing ahead with its education program. School visits, which are currently booked through mid-October, have been well-received, according to evaluations completed by school staff.

Kids are given a myriad of animal behavior information. They are told to always ask permission to pet someone's dog and to avoid dogs that are unattended.

To illustrate the lesson, kids take turns asking if they can pet one of the puppets, who "sniff" and "lick" the delighted children. Having had that experience, they move on to a real dog.

On this day, Victoria, a white Great Pyrenees, has been brought along to interact with the class. Wearing red beads around her thick neck, the dog calmly smells the children's fists and occasionally follows with a lick.

Teacher Teresa Dung Ta has witnessed the agony that can result from a dog bite. When her sister was 9, she was bitten by a dog and required rabies shots.

"Some children don't know how to approach a dog," Ta said. "Sometimes a dog can be mean and they don't know."

The inspiration for Pet Orphans Fund came in 1962, when Brentwood residents Virginia Haley and Diane Scripps found a starving puppy in the construction debris of the San Diego Freeway.

During the next 11 years, Haley and Scripps rescued dozens of cats and dogs, bringing them home or boarding them in local facilities. With their efforts becoming financially prohibitive, Haley and Scripps, along with 18 friends, obtained nonprofit status for their group in 1973.

In addition to its education programs, the fund also provides "after-death animal care" for pets who have no one to take care of them after their owner dies. Staff members and volunteers also give pointers to people who want to start a rescue shelter or to take dogs to hospitals and convalescent centers to cheer up patients.

The adoption numbers for the group may be lower than other privately run shelters, but "we believe in doing a more compassionate job. We want to keep the dogs and cats as comfortable and happy as we can until they are adopted," Scripps said. "It's a good experience for people and animals."

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