Four children sit on coloured crates opposite four shelter cats at the Lort Smith Animal Hospital. “Me and Luci-purr just got up to Chapter 3!” one child announces proudly, while the little black cat in the condo in front of her purrs audibly.
A boy pauses his reading of The Cat in the Hat to show the pictures to a clearly fascinated Eddy, a big old tabby cat with raggedy ears who lives at the shelter while waiting for adoption. Eddy is so big that his nickname among the staff is “Eddy-well-feddy.”
Outside in the dog park, a boy and a girl sit on blue cushions next to Maddie the border collie therapy dog. The boy throws his head back in frustration, challenged by a tricky word, and Maddie licks his hand in sympathy. The boy tickles her under the chin then gives the tricky word another go.
“I don’t really like reading,” he confesses later, “but the dogs like it so that’s why I keep going.”
The children are part of an excursion from Coolaroo South Primary School, visiting our animal-adoption centre for a very special take on the Australian Reading Hour, a nationwide initiative to promote and encourage the joys and benefits of reading.
In a first for both the school and Lort Smith, we invited the children behind the scenes, inside our Adoption Centre, to read to the animals. We were supported by librarians from Hume Libraries when we delivered the event, who brought along a selection of books for the children to choose from and supported the children as they read on the day.
“The idea of reading to animals is well-known in the US,” says Megan Nutbean, Manager of Community Projects for Lort Smith. “But it’s relatively new over here. People are quite surprised to learn how beneficial the practice is both for children and animals, and the research is increasingly backing this up.”
Even the most reluctant of readers can find motivation in reading to a rapt and friendly four-legged audience. The animal’s presence has been proven to help children feel safe and calm, and their non-judgemental attention (the animals don’t mind how long we take to spell out a word) builds confidence and enthusiasm.
But what makes this particular event even more special is that the reading is almost as beneficial to the animals as it is to the children.
“Studies have shown that being read to can reduce an animal’s stress, and provide enrichment and positive interactions with children,” Megan explains.
“This improves the animal’s socialisation, which ultimately increases the likelihood that it will be adopted and find a loving forever-home.”
And while the dogs are trained pet therapy animals, the cats are all shelter animals, waiting to find loving homes.
We were so thrilled with the outcomes of this event that we hope to make reading-to-animals a more regular program. “Our mission at Lort Smith is to care for both animals and the humans who love them,” says Megan, “and this has proven to be a joyful way to do both.”
The shelter animals and students from Coolaroo South Primary wholeheartedly concur. “I think the animals were so happy, like it was the best day of their lives,” said one girl.
Another agreed, then added, “Today I had the best day ever reading to the animals. It was better than Timezone.”