School kids learn about animal abuse

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Furry, fuzzy, cute and cuddly puppies and kittens are fun to have, but they grow up, and owning them is a lifetime commitment.

Taking on that responsibility and caring for a pet is one of the subjects covered in a 10-week course being taught at Valencia Elementary School.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Fifth-grade students at Valencia Elementary School fell in-love with Rico, the greyhound that came to their school as part of a 10-week program on animal welfare.

It is part of a state program to end animal abuse and neglect, and Valencia Elementary School fifth graders are participating in the program, now in its second year.

The program was developed by retired teacher Sherry Mangold, the senior cruelty case manager and educational outreach director with Animal Protection of New Mexico, along with Cindy Wacek, from Quixote Humane Inc., out of Bosque Farms.

It is taught in conjunction with a class taught by Valencia Elementary School fifth grade teacher Robyn Albani.

Albani is a member of HART, Homeless Animal Rescue Team, and is currently the only teacher that has the state program in her classroom.

“They’re trying to get the word out that they would like to have this program at other schools,” Albani said.

The title of the program is “Open Hearts-Open Minds,” and consists of student research on the costs and responsibilities involved with caring for a pet, presentations from animal protection professionals and culminates in a five-paragraph research paper written by each student.

The classroom work meets all of the benchmarks and standards devised by the New Mexico Department of Public Education.

Open Hearts-Open Minds was created by the state animal protection agency in response to the large numbers of animal neglect and animal cruelty calls it has received over the past six years.

Two counties had the most calls per capita, Valencia and San Miguel counties.

The program was initiated in Valencia County because that’s where most of the calls were coming from, said Mangold.

“Because of my teaching background, I switched from answering those lines to humane education, feeling that we aren’t going to get a change overnight, but we should start with students — with the children — and see where their attitudes are coming from, and what it would take to plant some seeds of a different kind,” Mangold said. “That’s literally how the program began.”

Every Monday during the course, students have the opportunity to meet with animal protection professionals who give presentations on a variety of topics, including humane stewardship, life and death of an animal in a shelter, the work of animal welfare officers, the need to spay or neuter pets, stray dog and bite safety, general behavior around animals, blood sports — the image versus the reality of dog fighting, plus a segment on the link between animal abuse, bullying behavior, domestic violence and assault behaviors in people.

For the latter presentation, Mangold brings in another one of her therapy dogs, Sophie, a 10-pound Italian greyhound that had been used as leverage in a violent domestic dispute. In the process, Sophie was stabbed three times in the back.

The victim of domestic violence called APNM from the emergency room at Lovelace Hospital, where she was being treated for her own stab wounds, and told Mangold that Sophie was in the car bleeding, and begged for help.

Mangold went down to the hospital, got the car keys from the woman, and took Sophie to the 24-hour emergency veterinarian clinic down the street.

“She was near death,” Mangold said. “She was having trouble breathing because the lung had collapsed. The clinic kept the dog for two weeks.”

Mangold adopted Sophie when the victim was moving out of state to her sister’s apartment that would not allow dogs.

Now, Sophie is a therapy dog that Mangold takes into Albuquerque hospitals.

Last week, professional service and therapy dogs were brought in for handlers to demonstrate how people should behave around friendly dogs they don’t know, what to do when approached by a stray dog and how to protect yourself if attacked by a dog.

Students were eager to interact with the service and therapy dogs brought in for that day’s presentation, and to practice the appropriate behaviors when approaching a friendly dog that they learned in the program.

The animal handlers and dogs are from the Southwest Canine Corps of Volunteers. They have been trained in pet therapy and volunteer services in order to visit hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and other facilities.

Animal Protection of New Mexico has worked closely with local animal welfare officer Eric Tanner, who is the director of animal services in Valencia County.

Tanner and officer John Jaramillo explain the work of an animal welfare officer to the class.

“We’re trying very hard to change the attitude about animal control officers, too,” Mangold said. “I keep stressing they are animal welfare officers, because lots of the children and people in general think of them as dog catchers, sometimes as ‘the enemy,’ when really they’re out there protecting people and protecting animals.”

The officers show students the equipment used to catch abandoned dogs, and demonstrate how it is the most humane way to handle them for both human protection and the safety of the animal.

The program was designed for fifth and sixth grade students.

“Cindy and I chose that age group, because as teachers, we know it is a pivotal time when they are starting to question their parents, and rebel a little bit, and raise questions and start to think about things beyond toys,” Mangold said. “We try to introduce this humane stewardship and awareness of neglect and cruelty and how they can help prevent it in very simple ways.”

The impact of the program is revealed by students’ concerns about their own pet’s not being spayed or neutered, or concern about friends or family with animals involved in blood sports.

“So, we know the messages are getting home, and that’s part of what this is all about,” Mangold said.

Several different evaluations are done at the end of the program, and a focus group tries to measure how the childrens’ attitudes have changed, not just with animals, but with a sense of empathy for their family, their neighbors, their friends and the community in general, she said.

“Our intent is to have it grow beyond just animal advocacy,” Mangold said.

An animal humane billboard with artwork by Nayalina Soliz from last year’s class was recently raised along Interstate 25 between Belen and Los Lunas.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.