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Learning Big Lessons on a Small Scale

A museum in Providence, Rhode Island, teaches children respect for animals by replicating the sights and functions of a real animal shelter.

A museum in Providence, Rhode Island, teaches children respect for animals by replicating the sights and functions of a real animal shelter.

With its cheerful front office, sparkling adoption center, cozy library, and well-equipped veterinary hospital, the building at 100 South Street in Providence, Rhode Island, appears to house a state-of-the-art animal shelter with all the trimmings.

But something is missing here: the typically noisy greetings of barking dogs and other shelter inhabitants. At this "facility," where the animals are stuffed and the workers are age nine and under, it's the pint-sized humans who are making all the racket.

The "Pets and People" exhibit at the Providence Children's Museum is a shelter-in-miniature, a place where children and parents can have fun and learn about responsible pet ownership while they're at it. You won't see any "Do Not Touch" signs in this exhibit, where children are encouraged to role-play by filling out adoption applications, dressing up in animal costumes, and donning white lab coats and stethoscopes.

The project is the brainchild of Jane Greco Deming, director of education and exhibit developer at the Providence Animal Rescue League. Designed in cooperation with an exhibit developer from Boston's Museum of Science, Pets and People is managed by the shelter and funded with the help of philanthropic organizations. Since its opening in October 1997, more than 125,000 people have visited, far exceeding the expectations of Deming and museum officials.

But for an exhibit with such an educational and entertaining forum, the high attendance figures are hardly a surprise. The museum is a child's wonderland—and a humane educator's dream. Kids who have a hard time seeing over the countertops of a real shelter will have no trouble taking in all the surroundings of the Pets and People exhibit. Everything is brought down to their level, from the charts that use only pictures to explain proper animal care to the stainless steel examination table that sits close to the floor.

Everything is brought down to a child's level, from the charts that use only pictures to explain proper animal care to the stainless steel examination table that sits close to the floor.

A life-size photo of a woman in front of a bank of cat cages completes the look and lends even more reality to the mini-shelter. Small touches such as clipboards and real stethoscopes are a big hit with little visitors, who take their jobs very seriously, says Deming. Children adopting a stuffed animal must fill out forms with simple questions such as "Will you play with your new pet every day? Will you take your new pet for a checkup? Will you love your new pet forever?"

Likewise, budding veterinarians can enter their names after the "Dr." at the top of a medical form. As they proceed with examinations, they can check off boxes for heart, teeth, ears, and weight. "The best thing is that we even hear kids say, 'And then next week you'll have to bring him back to be fixed,'" says Deming.

As a parent and grandparent, Deming knew that clipboards and other information-gathering devices would not only appeal to children but also convey the idea that adopting a pet is not a game. "My feeling was that if they took their role-playing seriously enough," she says, "there were messages that might not be in-your-face but would be subtle ways of reminding children that this is an obligation and a responsibility. And they love doing it. It's funny—they're so serious."

Letters from parents attest to this. In one note to the shelter, a mother whose son has an extremely short attention span wrote: "I've never been able to keep him in one place for more than three minutes. After an hour and a half, I had to drag him out of your exhibit. Kudos to Providence Animal Rescue League."

Parents get their own dose of humane education from the exhibit, which features a mural high on the wall that, to small children, appears to be an innocuous picture of multiple cats. But adults can see the fine print: in small white letters, the mural explains the tragedy of pet overpopulation, explaining how thousands of litters can result from just a couple of unneutered cats. "It is amazing," says Deming, "because every single day, someone will say to us, 'Oh my god, I had no idea cats reproduce that fast.' Or, 'Holy mackerel, there are that many cats?'"

Because the exhibit is such an important resource for the entire family, Deming gives free museum passes to shelter visitors who are considering adopting a pet but are unsure of what's involved. These days, Deming is also passing out advice to other organizations interested in launching similar programs. More than a dozen shelters want to reproduce exhibit materials for their lobbies, and a school in Massachusetts is building a miniature "animal hospital"in its science hall. Such ventures require hard work and a strong corps of dedicated volunteers, Deming says, but obtaining funding was surprisingly easy. "I've been writing grants for over twenty years," she says. "It's the first time that no one has said 'no.' In fact, two of the agencies asked me to come back for more money."

 

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