The Humane Education Ambassador Readers program uses books about animals to help children develop empathy for other creatures, prevent animal cruelty and promote responsible care of pets.

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WHEATON, Md. — “I have no use for a cat.” That’s what Mrs. Crump says when the golden cat shows up on her porch and slips in the door. And when she thinks about letting the cat out, one child in Natalie Nelson’s kindergarten class can’t help but interrupt.

“That’s not a nice thing to do! You can’t tell a cat to shoo, because they like you,” the student calls out.

It’s not a bad summary of one of the lessons of “Mrs. Crump’s Cat,” the book that humane educator BJ Altschul is reading to the class.

Altschul’s visit to Arcola Elementary is part of the Humane Education Ambassador Readers program, which brings volunteers into schools to lead activities based on a carefully selected list of picture books about people and animals. The goal is to help children develop the empathy for other creatures that prevents animal cruelty and promotes responsible care of pets.

Each book is chosen partly because it helps children understand something about the meaning of a pet’s sounds, tail-wagging and other body language. These basic lessons in animal behavior are important because many of the children involved in the program have no pets, and their only experiences of animals may be fearful ones.

“If they’re not raised around animals, they may not understand how you can listen to an animal,” says Nicole Forsyth of United Animal Nations, which developed the program.

In the book read to Nelson’s class, Mrs. Crump warms to the cat, letting it dry off by the fire. And when it won’t eat bread, she goes to the store to buy it some cream… and then a bowl, and flea soap, and a pretty collar.

After the reading, a few students are chosen to act out the story, and the class puts what they’ve learned about cat communication into action. When the child playing the cat would rather stay with Mrs. Crump than be let loose, Altschul asks the whole room, “How would you let her know that? What kinds of sounds would you make?” The class breaks out in a loud purr.

The mission of United Animal Nations is to take animals out of crisis situations such as natural disasters, but president and CEO Forsyth says they found themselves dealing with more cruelty cases, such as puppy mill rescues. Rather than simply react to these situations, they wanted to get involved in prevention by teaching humane attitudes toward animals from an early age.

The Humane Education Ambassador Readers program is designed so that it can be implemented on a local level by trained volunteers, which is important since few animal welfare organizations have the resources for a large dedicated humane education staff. And it is structured to fit in with specific curriculum standards for different states.

Teacher Heather Bracken of Hazel Strauch Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif., has had humane reading volunteers in her third grade class for the past two years. Bracken says that in her inner-city school, the program is important because it may be the first experience her students have of the idea of “an animal as part of the family.”

But a big reason that it works is that it does double duty: “They come in with documentation of how it fits into the standards,” she says. “It makes it easy for a teacher to get approval from her administrator.”

Having been successful incorporating the program into curriculum standards in Sacramento, Calif., Washington, D.C., and British Columbia, the group is now gearing up to expand to other cities.

Although it’s too soon to judge the long-term effectiveness of the program, Bracken says that some results were clear in how her students talked to her after the visits, such as expressing concern for stray animals.

And she says that none of the parents complained when they got the inevitable requests for pets, because the students knew the effort that would be involved.

The program “taught the children the sense of joy of having an animal, and also the responsibility that goes along with it,” she says. “They go home and educate their parents, too.”

Linda Lombardi: