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Montreal Families

Educational programs about animals aim to teach empathy

Two former animal shelter workers are pioneering a new approach to teaching children empathy for animals by offering educational workshops about pets.

ENGAGE: Animal Welfare Education  is the brainchild of Colleen Ovenden and Emelie Luciani, who were both previously involved in youth-education programs at the Montreal SPCA. They left in January 2017 to found ENGAGE, which offers school workshops as well as programs for the general public.

All programs include information about animals, group discussions, and a hands-on creative project to improve the lives of animals in shelters. Depending on the age group, this could be making a treat dispenser for cats out of recycled objects, building a nest-type basket with organic materials for wild birds, creating educational posters illustrating how to safely interact with dogs, or writing adoption profiles for animals in shelters.

In schools, they offer either a series of one-hour workshops on animal behaviour or  more in-depth two and a half hour sessions. Ovenden said that due to time constraints, animals are only brought in during the longer sessions. ENGAGE also offers a field trip program that takes participants  into local animal shelters (maximum 10 students at a time).

Luciani said animal shelters are often bombarded with requests from children and their parents who want to help, but for safety reasons, most shelters require volunteers to be over 18. The workshops offered by ENGAGE help shelters give youth a way to become involved without having to worry about safety or supervision.

“Teens and youth of various ages want to volunteer and want to get involved, but they can’t,” she said. “Animals in shelters are a fragile, vulnerable population but we want them to have a youth presence. Our program is a solution to this issue.”

In January and February, ENGAGE will be offering two public workshops in shelters: one for kids aged 8-12 and the other for teens and young adults 13 and up. For each age group, a series of four two and a half hour workshops will be offered on topics such as animal behaviour as well as how to care for cats, dogs and other small companion animals. Participants can choose to sign up for all the workshops or just the topics that they find most interesting.

ENGAGE partners with three shelters: the Montreal SPCA, Services Animaliers de la Rive-Sud (in Boucherville) and Refuge A.M.R. (in St. Constant). The workshops give children a better understanding of the hardships faced by these animals. Through their workshops, they hope to teach children to respect and value animals, and understand the responsibility that comes with pet ownership.

Luciani said most children they visit say they love animals but don’t have many opportunities to learn what they can do to help the ones in need. “Animals surround us. They’re part of our everyday lives,” Luciani said. “Yet youth don’t have a platform to discuss and learn about them. Kids want to talk and they want to learn. They’re engaged. That’s where the name of our organization comes from.”

Luciani said many of the kids in her programs have gone on to become advocates for animal welfare, passing on what they have learned to other children and the adults in their lives. She said some have chosen to speak about issues such as breed-specific legislation restricting pit bull ownership or topics like animal behaviour in class projects.

Luciani and Ovenden said that Quebec has lagged behind other provinces in implementing and enforcing legislation on animal welfare, and noted that Quebec has one of the highest rates of surrendered pets and euthanasia in North America. In recent years, the province has been strengtheninglaws on animal protection, they said, but the best way to protect animals is to change our cultural understanding of how we relate to our furry, feathered or scaly friends.

“It’s really hard to change a culture on a societal level, but education is the solution and the earlier we start teaching kids, the better,” Luciani said. “We are looking to the next generation to make the changes that we see are needed today.”

For more information, visit engageanimal.org.

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