Kittens, cockatoos and lizards are stepping into virtual learning (and they’re available for adoption too — see our local list of shelters)

(Image via Pets In Need)

One topic weighing on many Bay Area parents’ minds has been engaging squirrely kids through, often monotonous, online learning sessions. But what if the next time they checked in on little Timmy, they found him reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to a bearded dragon?

This whimsical circumstance is the result of Pets In Need’s partnership with schools. The animals of this Peninsula-based animal shelter have been graciously volunteering their time (and their ears) so that fledgling readers can gain confidence in their literacy skills.

The PIN Pal Virtual Reading Club is the latest of many strategies initiated by Pets In Need Program Manager, Marsa Hollander, to connect shelter animals with elementary and middle schoolrooms across San Mateo and Santa Clara County.

“It’s a positive experience right now for the kids,” Hollander explains. Because really, who wouldn’t rather read to a nonjudgmental creature?

(Image via the Pets in Need Yelp page)

The Program

Early in the pandemic, Hollander got into an interesting discussion with her next-door neighbor who—also a third-grade teacher—opened up about the difficulties of engaging kids through online learning. “She told me, ‘I can’t get these kids to concentrate and they’re coming to the table not wanting to turn on the camera. They’re coming to the table in their pajamas, with cereal.’”

After mulling over the problem, Hollander devised a plan. “I got a hold of the schools that we visit… and said, ‘You know what, how would you guys like us popping in on your lessons?’”

The schools enthusiastically agreed and the PIN Pal Virtual Reading Club was born. Months later, the program has been a huge success. “We’re booked, so we must be doing something good!” Hollander says. She adds, “The teachers have written testimonials how the kids are now reading in other subjects out loud — before they never wanted to read in front of a big group. And now they are.”

(Image via Pets In Need)

Peeking in on a Session

So what does a session look like?

When a new classroom first joins the program, Hollander always gives the students a quick tour of the shelter’s Redwood City facility. She’ll talk about the shelter while she pans her camera over the cat and dog adoption areas as well as the medical department. They also stop by the relatively new kitten nursery (for the teeny tiny fluff balls who aren’t ready for adoption yet). “We were able to save, I think, 500 more kittens last year, than the previous year,” Hollander shares.

Afterwards, Hollander and her two assistants set themselves up in different rooms, the students break into groups and the reading begins.

With locations in Palo Alto and Redwood City, Pets In Need has no shortage of reading buddies. Some fan favorites? “All last week they read to six kittens,” Hollander says. They also read to “Luna the Frenchie, who snores and farts all the time,” which of course, the kids find absolutely hilarious. Sometimes Hollander brings in her own Boston Terrier mix, Cha Cha. “They always ask ‘So, what funny thing did Cha Cha do?’ And we have to talk about the night before when she ate my sandwich that I put on the table.”

Reading partners aren’t always the fuzzy variety. They might be sharing their story with Crush the turtle. Or Coco the cockatoo who bobs his head and dances toHarry Belafontesongs (“Jump in the line, shake your body in time”). They might be hanging out with Buddy the bearded dragon. “Half the time I have to poke him to make sure he’s still alive,” Hollander laughs.

(Image via Paws For Tales)

In Good Company

Pets In Need isn’t the only local shelter with a virtual reading program. Paws For Tales at the Peninsula Humane Society is partnering with the San Mateo Main Library, Redwood City Public Library and the San Mateo County Library (SMCL) system to offer a similar service.

The program has been serving the community since 2007 and consists not of adoptable animals, but of therapy dogs and their handlers. “They’re mellow dogs — virtually and in person,” says Marivic Dizon, Pet Assisted Therapy Coordinator at the humane society. “If you have a young lab — that’s like bouncing around — that’s not going to be great for a reading team. But these are dogs that are totally comfortable lying next to the person, sitting right there, no problem.”

(Image via Paws For Tales)

They also structure their program a little differently, arranging sessions between one kid, one dog and one handler. “Ideally, they have that one-on-one time because they’re in the more non-judgmental presence of a dog,” Dizon explains.

Despite its difference in approach, both programs understand the benefit of animals on kids’ well-being. “[Researchers have] found seeing an animal on the screen is a calming experience,” Dizon explains. “And I think you can see that when people are watching dog videos or cat videos — it makes them feel happy.”It’s why she’s also offering doggie meet-and-greet sessions with high school and college students as a way to destress before finals.

Students aren’t the only ones benefiting from these programs.

It’s quite the source of entertainment for volunteers. “It’s always funny,” Hollander notes. “They keep me giggling.” Case in point, she starts chuckling as she recalls moments when eager little storytellers started oversharing. “The littler they are, the funnier they are. It’s amazing. Out of the mouths of babes is a perfect, perfect thing. So they all want to tell stories about their animals. All of them.”

Even the animals benefit from the interactions. “Most of them will just curl up on their bed, because when they hear voices, it relaxes the animal.” The kids don’t seem to mind that they’re putting their audience to sleep.

Learn more about Pets in Need and their many other programs.

Click here for more details and schedule info of the Paws For Tales program.

(Image via Pets In Need)

Our List of Local Animal Shelters

We all could use a little animal therapy during stressful pandemic living. If you’re considering adoption, allow us to introduce you to our favorite local shelters on the Peninsula.

Note: Keep in mind, most places are available by appointment only during the pandemic.

Pets In Need (Redwood City, Palo Alto)

Supporters of the no-kill movement, Pets In Need rescues dogs, cats and rabbits in danger of being euthanized by lack of space at public shelters. Their new facilities have open apartments for dogs with no bars and reduced noise, while the more social cats are housed in “colonies” so they can play and climb together.

Peninsula Humane Society (PHS) & Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Adoption Center (San Mateo)

PHS’s spacious facility offers a safe haven to all kinds of critters. So whether your preference is cats, dogs, homing pigeons or turtles with adorable names like Little Jaws, you have plenty of options. PHS has also purchased 261 acres of land as an animal sanctuary for dogs, cats and other pets who won’t likely be adopted to traditional homes.

(Image via Yelp)

Nine Lives Foundation (Redwood City)

Nine Lives Foundation is a cat-only boarding facility with a no-kill policy. Feline residents hang out in rooms furnished with cat beds and hammocks as well as toys.

Homeless Cats Network (Belmont)

Though HCN has currently suspended its adoption fairs, it continues to pair cats with loving homes.

West Coast Bloodhound Rescue (Burlingame)

WCBR is dedicated to bloodhounds, a breed also lovingly referred to as “the Clydesdales of the hound group.” These fellows are floppy ears and soulful eyes… What’s not to love?

(Image via ChinchillaRescue.org)

Chinchilla Rescue (Sunnyvale)

Chinchilla Rescue is a chain of foster homes, so make sure you know which adorable little fluffball you’d like to visit before planning your trip.

Pet’s Delight (Los Altos)

This pet shop partners with pet adoption organizations.

Doggie Protective Services

Though its HQ might be in Southern California, DPS pairs dogs with homes across California.

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Johanna Harlow

Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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