Puss In Boots is a well-recognized kitty, but what about puss in books? If the focus is on a groundbreaking program where kids read to cats at an animal shelter on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, felines and fables go together like cats and catnip.
At the Animal Rescue League of Berks County in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, the no-kill shelter's "Book Buddies" program ushers in dozens of volunteer children each week from ages 6 to 13 to read to the resident cats. The program's advantages are twofold: the cats help the children hone their literacy skills by acting as a non-threatening and supportive audience, and the felines are comforted by the human interaction, companionship and the soothingly rhythmic sounds of the children's voices. This is a beautiful example of following God's Word about learning from animals: "But ask the animals, and they will teach you…" (Job 12:7-10).
When cats are socialized, they're much easier to adopt out. This is particularly crucial during kitten season, when the shelter is often inundated with up to a whopping 30 kitties per day.
According to Beth Ireland, the shelter's marketing and communications director, the Book Buddies program was inspired by ARL's Program Director, Kristi Rodriguez, in August of 2013. "I had come across an article about a shelter out West who had a similar program," Rodriguez described. "In their case, they had the children reading to dogs. We decided to find a quieter spot in our shelter, which would be our cat room. And then we invited the kids. We sent letters and program flyers out to all the schools in our surrounding community. Public libraries were notified, as well: 'Visit our Facebook page and our web page.' And in a matter of days, the children were flooding the shelter to come and participate."
Rodriguez had a personal investment in the program, as well: her 10-year-old son, Sean, was having difficulty reading at school, with all of his classmates watching him. "It's kind of scary," he said, "because there are a lot of people in my class. So I, like, skip half of a sentence, and I mess up and then I have to restart."
His mother brought him to the shelter to practice reading to the cats -- and it worked wonders for him. "We took him to the cat room and said, 'Why don't you practice reading here? The cats aren't going to care if you mess up,' " said Ireland. Added Rodriguez regarding their pint-sized volunteer readers, "They can come here, sit with the cats and the cats don't judge. They don't care what story you're reading or how well you read. They're just looking for that affection and that attention from the kids."
And as for Sean? He enjoyed the experience so much, he asked to come back. Six months later, Sean's reading has improved considerably, and now he even reads at home to his family's dogs.
"I'm reading [cats] Bruce and Juliet a dragon story," Sean elaborated. "I'm reading to some of the cats. And before, the one cat went up there was just, like, sitting there and I was reading, and he was, like, staring at me." Ireland added that the kids are also reading a lot of vampire-themed stories to their fanged feline audiences.
"Do you enjoy reading more, do you think, now that you get to read to the animals?" his mother asked. "Does it make it more fun to read?"
Sean unhesitatingly agreed, "Yeah, it really does."
Seven-year-old Chymera Fields is another regular cat room volunteer. A tiny cat named Chase is her favorite. "He's a very good listener," she complimented. "I like coming here because my favorite type of animal is cats -- big cats, small cats, medium cats. My favorite type of cat is a tiger."
Regarding the tiger's smaller, tamer feline cousin, Chase, Chymera said he's very sweet and deserves to get adopted to a forever home soon. She admitted that she'll miss her visits with him, but conceded, "I want the best for him, and if he gets a new home then that's going to be great."
There's also an added incentive: for every five books read, the children can rack up points for prizes. "But it's such a secondary thing to the kids," Ireland stressed. "The prize for them is the opportunity to hang out with the cats."
Ireland went on to say that groups, including local Brownie troops, and over two dozen individual children who vary in age and reading abilities, visit weekly. "We have some kids who started coming in August when we started, and are still coming.
"One little boy has autism," she continued, "and his mom home schools him. His mom knows that interaction with animals is helpful, and it has been. He's blossomed while he's here. It's so sweet to watch."
Then there was the little girl whose fear of animals was quelled once she became involved with the program. Not only did reading to the kitties help her feel at ease with four-legged furry friends, but now she's also one of the shelter's volunteer dog walkers.
Says Rodriguez, "The reading program is a community outreach program. It enables children in our community to come in, read to the cats, earn prizes and spend some extra loving on our cats here at the shelter. It helps improve the children's reading skills, as well as their self-esteem."
Ireland agrees that the reading program has fortified the bond between the ARL and the community -- it has introduced new families to the shelter, and has even increased adoptions. "The community is so supportive of us, and this is a great way to give back," she enthused. "And it gives our cats socialization and play time that they need. They love it!"
In a win-win, the cats savor the companionship, and the children adore the cats. "I've been getting emails and phone calls from parents thanking us for having this program at the shelter," Rodriguez said. "It's improved their children's skills at school -- it's boosted their self-esteem through the roof. So it's been well-received all around."
The program has generated viral praise from the Internet, the shelter's website, and especially from overjoyed parents. "Mattighan loved reading to the cats on 12/31/13," wrote mom Heather Colon, "and has talked about it nonstop since then. She was thrilled to see her picture on your website and has received many calls from people who also viewed it. This was a great experience for both of us, and we are looking forward to coming back soon. Thanks for all you do for the animals."
And mother Katie Procyk summed it up when she wrote, "I want to thank you for giving my son the opportunity to participate in a program such as this one. I believe it truly helps him to not only read, but to help the animals who do not have warm, loving homes, and that we must help speak up for the critters who do not have a voice."