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Jerry Steinley.JPG

Jerry Steinley

Eight-year-old Ethan and his mother, Amy Burke, visited the Humane Society’s cat room, Purassic Park, early in January to spend some time reading to cats. The cats seemed to enjoy the company and Ethan was content reading Star Wars and "Read to Tiger" with the feline audience.

“I was impressed that he read for a full 45 minutes. He doesn’t normally do that,” Amy said.

Ethan does read at home, Amy pointed out, and the family dog often listens in. But she figured reading at the Humane Society could be considered something of an educational experience to reinforce in her son the value in helping others and giving back. Besides, reading to cats at the Humane Society was a way for Ethan to get in his nightly second-grade reading requirements in a different way.

“There was absolutely no nagging with this one. He was excited,” Amy said.

We were excited, too, to be honest, because Ethan and Amy were the first of what we hope will be many more young readers bending a kennel animals’ ear.

Reading to animals is actually an established program I hadn’t really heard of until it came up here at the Humane Society. The activity in many shelters is geared toward shy dogs as a way to socialize them and ready them for adoption; we will aim for that goal, as well, if we have the opportunity down the road. But another clear benefit of reading to animals is how it helps the young reader: animals provide a non-judgmental audience in a relaxed environment; animals don’t interrupt; and, they’ll spend as much time listening as a person will spend reading.

Amy said she first heard about reading to animals from her friend (and Mats and Cats yoga instructor) Laura Armstrong about a year ago. Both knowing Ethan was an animal lover and he was just starting to really read, they figured reading to animals might work in that equation some day.

That day finally came in January when the Burke’s, along with Humane Society board member Ron Sasso, stopped in for the first official reading to animals visit.

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Like I mentioned, Reading to Animals is just a seed of a program at the Humane Society of the Black Hills but early reviews are positive (OK, one review and it was Amy saying it met expectations and she wouldn’t mind coming back), so we’ll keep moving forward. Moving forward at this point means having a private, enclosed space we can bring dogs in for young readers, and we should have this space available in the next month.

For the Humane Society, supporting a program to bring young readers in for quality time with animals is a win-win: reading skills are developed, animals get attention, and we get to be part of that and, maybe, develop a program that will assist young readers years down the road.

Whatever reading to animals becomes, we’ll do our best, because reading to animals not only helps the animals but it also provides children with the lifelong skill of knowing how to gather information about the world, evaluate the information, and then make good decisions based on it. If the Humane Society of the Black Hills helps one young student become a better reader, and one young reader helps socialize a shy animal, then this program will be a success.

Have a comment for the Humane Society of the Black Hills? Something you would like to see addressed in a future column? Email the Resource Development Director at volunteer@hsbh.org.

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