As PAWS' humane educator enters the fourth grade classroom, the students wiggle in their seats with anticipation. "The PAWS lady is here," one student exclaims. This is the fourth of six weekly visits to their classroom as part of the PAWS Kids Who Care program.
Today the students will learn about wildlife—not through the use of live animals but through animal artifacts. The students gather quietly in a circle on the floor and as the educator draws out the first artifact, they gasp with surprise and awe. She holds up a strikingly beautiful wing, covered in a flawless and unique pattern. "What type of animal do you think this came from?" she asks.
The children eagerly raise their hands, "It has feathers, so it's from a bird!"
"Good guess! Who else wants to add to that answer?" says the educator as she scans the room.
"I think it's from an eagle!"
"I bet it's from an owl. I saw one once when I was with my grandpa."
After everyone has had a chance to share, the educator reveals the answer: a Great Horned Owl. She hands the wing to the first student and watches as his eyes fill with wonder. "It's so soft," he says as he brushes the feathers across his hands.
"The softness of the wing is what helps owls to fly silently," says the educator, "which is important for them to hunt their prey."
As the wing is passed around the circle the educator continues to share with the students the natural history of Great Horned Owls and the story of this particular bird, once a PAWS patient. “We are not sure exactly what happened to this owl—when she was brought to PAWS she was starving because her wing had been injured. She was no longer able fly or catch her own food. Despite our best efforts to care for her, she died. It is always very sad for us at PAWS when an animal dies, but she lives on through teaching students like you about her kind.”
They continue to discover and explore wildlife with the other artifacts she brought on this day—a cougar skull, black bear fur, and the talon of a Cooper's Hawk. Each artifact helps tell a story, and the students are eager to hear each one.
Combining artifacts with stories and guided discussions are very effective educational tools. Wildlife artifacts are interactive, engaging the students' senses and sparking curiosity, priming them to hear and remember more. Through the discussion, students use critical thinking skills to come up with solutions to real-life dilemmas of protecting wild animals. The students also develop a deep reverence and respect for the artifacts and the animals they represent when they hear each one's story and the natural history of the species. Many students put their ideas into action by creating informative posters. Some teachers also use this project as a graded assignment, to link art and writing, while others create displays to share the messages with their school.
PAWS does not keep any wild animals permanently in captivity, choosing to use artifacts rather than live animals in our educational programs. We focus resources on rehabilitating wild animals with the sole goal of releasing them back into the wild. There are several reasons why PAWS chose this approach. Wild animals have evolved over millions of years as independent, free-living beings. They have needs, instincts and behaviors that are inseparably tied both to their appropriate habitat and to a free-living state. No matter how well designed a captive habitat may be, it can never replicate the freedom that wild animals need to be complete beings.
Captive wild animals are unable to respond naturally to their full range of instincts and desires. This creates both physiological and psychological stress that leads to suffering for the animal. This is even more pronounced when the captive animal has experienced permanent, debilitating injuries, as is the case with many non-releasable animals that enter rehabilitation centers. When PAWS accepts a wild animal for care, we also accept the responsibility to ensure that the animal is not subjected to prolonged physical or psychological suffering. Therefore, we believe that release from suffering through euthanasia is the most humane option for wild animals that cannot be returned to their natural habitat.
PAWS also believes that displaying live animals for education perpetuates an unrealistic view of wild animals and their natural behaviors, and sends mixed messages about the distinction between wildlife and companion animals. The students in PAWS' humane education programs are usually not aware of this debate. They may ask why we didn't bring live animals, but once they participate in the artifact circle they quickly become absorbed in the individual stories and the experiences of their senses.
To deliver classes that focus on care for companion animals, PAWS relies on a team of special teaching assistants—life-like toys such as “Sammy the retriever,” “Cooper the black lab puppy,” and “Smokey the cat.” Students learn about responsible animal care and safety with these toy animals. The kids may gently hold one of animals at their desks or interact with them to learn how to greet an unfamiliar dog and practice acting like a “tree” or “rock” when approached by a stray dog.
For places where a live dog is permitted, PAWS has a special partnership with Great Dog in Seattle, a multi-service company that enriches the lives of dogs and their people. Delta Society Certified Pet Partner, Opie and his guardian Judi Anderson-Wright, co-owner of Great Dog, deliver the “Operation Opie” program on bite prevention safety. Opie has been thoroughly trained and tested in interacting safely with people in a variety of situations. This program is a wonderful complement to PAWS' lessons on responsible care of companion animals.
At PAWS we believe we can most effectively deliver our messages of compassion and respect for animals by staying mindful of the needs of animals in the classroom setting. Through use of animal artifacts, stuffed toy “teaching assistants,” and a partnership with a Delta Society Certified Pet Partner, we achieve truly humane education.
Learn more about our programs by visiting PAWS Kids website.