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Students interact with animals in the classroom

Sarah Cummins

1/16/2000 12:00:00 AM

Children can learn control and confidence while working with critters, contends local school official Jane Jones.

"Hello, hello, hello," chimed four-year-old Rachel Bigford as she snuggled baby buffalo August Dawn. Smiling brightly, Rachel wrapped her arms around the buffalo and started the motions to hop on.

"We don't ride on buffalo; we ride on horses," explained Teacher Assistant Jane Jones to Rachel.

This particular pre-primary classroom at the Saginaw Chippewa Academy Binoojiinh Montessori has frequent visits from a baby buffalo and is home to many fish, lizards and a white rabbit.

Jones explained her belief that children benefit from interacting with animals. "We've got a couple of kids who are really hyper," stated Jones. "They're not ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] kids, you wouldn't consider them that, but they just don't focus well. When they work with any of the animals they seem to really focus for that period of time, so it's almost like a counseling/therapy session for them."

According to Jones, not only elementary students but also teens can benefit from interaction with animals. "We've got a lot of problem kids who need to learn respect for themselves and for the people around them," stated Jones.

Jones would like to develop a program where children can go to a farm and work with animals. In her plan, the children would have to earn points in order to have hands-on interaction with the animals.

The concept of children and even adults benefiting from interaction with animals is not new. Many organizations currently exist which focus on several issues involving such interaction. They focus on education, abused children and animal recovery programs, therapeutic contact with animals for the elderly and seriously ill and bonding and focusing exercises for children within the classroom.

The National Association for Humane and Environmental Education is the youth education division of The Humane Society of the United States. The NAHEE was founded in 1973 as a national resource for educators and teachers affiliated with local humane agencies.

The NAHEE's primary goal is to "enable educators to more effectively teach children the value of kindness toward one another, animals and the Earth, and to empower youth as they seek to embody the ideal of respect and appreciation for life."

The NAHEE also conducts Breaking the Cycle of Abuse workshops. The workshops are part of the solution to one of the NAHEE's chief objectives which is to "increase public awareness between animal cruelty and child abuse."

Another program focusing on children interacting with animals is "Paws in the Classroom" conducted through the Pet Society of Northern Alberta. The purpose of this course is "to encourage appropriate behaviors and stimulate interest in academic endeavors through the students' interest in pets."

The methods involved in this program include visiting dogs unleashed in the classroom and students interacting with them as long as the students continues to show interest and participate in class discussion and activities. Guest speakers such as veterinarians, dog obedience trainers and pet groomers are also part of the program along with a field trip to the Edmonton Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

According to the Paws in the Classroom website, the preliminary results of this program include an increase in attendance and timeliness of students, improvements in attention and concentration as evident by responses and questions during discussion and scores on weekly exams, improved respect for teachers, instructors, each other and visitors, and many other benefits.

One of Michigan's organizations for positive human-animal interaction is AnimaLink, Inc. The objectives of this organization are to "promote the benefits that humans receive through their interaction with animals; create a support structure through which individuals can develop and attain opportunities for quality human-animal interactions; provide information, expertise and tools to facilities, groups and individuals whose lives and services are or could be improved through quality human-animal interactions; and educate, motivate and connect individuals involved in all aspects of human-animal interaction activities."

AnimaLink, Inc. has three departments in order to meet the needs of human-animal interaction participants. These are Therapeutic Animal Services, Companion Animal Services and Working Animal Services. The AnimaLink Training Center is located in Sanford. The central location makes it accessible to individuals and organizations throughout Michigan. There is scientific and psychological evidence that humans benefit from positive contact with animals.

Biologist E.O. Wilson defined the concept of "biophilia" as "the innate tendency to focus on life." In his book published in 1984, he "suggests that the evolutionary history of human thought, language and socialization has been profoundly influenced by our species' relationship with other animals."

More recently, in 1993 studies done by researchers Katcher and Wilkins involving children and animals published in Biophilia Hypothesis (Keller, Wilson, eds; Washington D.C. Island Press, 1993) reached three conclusions. They include: "Animals brought into a human context are powerful reinforcers of human attention and behavior; when the child is given the opportunity to interact with the animal as well as watch it, there are more positive changes in behavior, and they are more persistent; and human speech and the nonverbal expression of emotion are facilitated by the presence of animals."

Similarly, the National Parent Teacher Association Congress issued a statement in 1993 which correlates with these findings. "Children trained to extend justice, kindness and mercy to animals become more just, kind and considerate in their relation with each other. Character training along these lines in youth will result in men and women of broader sympathies, more humane, more law-abiding��in every respect more valuable citizens."

Jones has concluded through these influences and her own observations that children gain insight from the honest reactions of animals. "If they hurt the animal, the animal won't respect them and won't pay any attention to them," said Jones.

Currently, Jones has access to August Dawn and another year-and-a-half old buffalo, a potbellied pig and two Ghost Wind Horses. This breed of horses was featured in an article in the Nov. 1, 1997 edition of the Tribal Observer.

Here is contact information on the above mentioned organizations. Paws in the Classroom information can be found at http://paws.shopalberta.com/PClassroom.htm., NAHEE can be accessed at http://www.nahee.org/aboutus/Default.htm and AnimaLink's website is at http:/www.animalink.com/aboutus.htm.