‘Animal Ambassadors’ program provides humane education to primary school pupils in Glasgow and socialization to animals in shelters

A partnership between a Glasgow animal shelter and a local primary school aims to teach pupils how to care for animals safely and show compassion towards those with and without four legs.

On a recent Friday afternoon at the shelter, 10-month-old Snoopy lay in bed at the Barren River Animal Welfare Association, or BRAWA, as Highland Elementary School student Greer Benefield was reading a book. Snoopy looked slightly confused but grateful for the attention. At the end of the cages, other students were reading to Bean, China, Roxy and Rocket.

Some of the dogs happily wagged their tails at their new human friends, while others turned away in disinterest.

The students are known as “Animal Ambassadors” and are members of Highland Elementary’s Talent Pool program. It is a way for the school’s gifted and talented students to engage with the community and dedicate time to volunteer service. Molly Taylor volunteers with BRAWA and coordinates the partnership between the school and the shelter. She said the students’ engagement with the shelter is only the first step towards a healthy and lifelong relationship with the animals.

“I’m confident that if you start young with a humane upbringing, these kids will grow into compassionate, loving members of society,” Taylor said.

Human education is a movement that combines human rights, environmental preservation and animal protection. Taylor said it’s a way to teach compassion and empathy for all living things.

“We need more of that. So hopefully if we teach young people how to be responsible pet owners, how to be compassionate pet owners, then I think they will teach others. They can lead by example and everyone wins.”

The Animal Ambassadors program rotates monthly between students visiting BRAWA and Taylor visiting the school, usually accompanied by at least one furry friend. She teaches students about proper pet care, how to spot abused animals, and the importance of spaying pets. Fifth grader Emaline Pike shared with me some of her new insights from the lessons.

“We learned that most cats, once they get older, usually become lactose intolerant. We learned what not to feed your pets. We learned body language and what to do if a dog approaches you, Pike explained.

A group of students from Highland Elementary take turns reading to a kitten at BRAWA.

The students spend the weeks between visits counting the days until they next see the woman they call “Mrs. Molly”. But the real magic for children is when they enter the shelter and see the dozens of animals waiting for a friend.

Third grader Leigha Jones brought one of her favorite Dr. Seuss books to read to her furry audience. She takes special care to always show the images in the book to the animal she is associated with.

“Dogs are really interested, they are observant. So when you show them, like a picture, they’ll try to sniff it or look at it,” Jones said.

It wasn’t just Leigha showing the photos to the animals. Most students shared the illustrations with their reading partners. Molly Taylor said she thinks the animals like her as much as the kids.

“I think they like someone just focusing on them. And whether they hear the words of the story or care about the words of the story, it really doesn’t matter. They’re so happy someone is spending that one for once with them,” Taylor said.

Even if the students or the animals don’t realize it, the human-animal interaction provided by the program prepares the animals in the shelter for life after finding their “forever home”. Vicki Smith, a teacher at Highland Elementary and head of the Talent Pool program, said the goal of the program was to help animals socialize.

“There’s a lot of noise,” Smith said. “But once our kids spend some time with them, it helps them calm down.”

Smith said the program is a highlight of the year for many students at Highland. She said younger students spend the early years of their primary school careers looking forward to the time when they can join the Talent Pool and become animal ambassadors themselves.

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Third-grade students at Highland Elementary await instruction before reading books to house pets at BRAWA.