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A Little Humane Education—Minus the Naughty Bits

Performing sterilization "surgeries" helps kids bring lessons home to parents

Performing sterilization "surgeries" helps kids bring lessons home to parents

Jan Berlin has been teaching kids about spaying and neutering since 1992. With the help of a few props—children's doctor kits, medical gloves, and used veterinary scrubs—she stands before grade-school classes and explains the hows and whys of sterilization to people whose feet barely touch the floor.

The animals of Port Jervis are grateful that the spay/neuter "patients" in Jan Berlin's classes are actually stuffed bedroom slippers.

Sound easy? You try explaining to a bunch of second graders where they have to put the thermometer.

But as the director of humane education for the Humane Society of Port Jervis/Deerpark in New York, Berlin is able to do this without a blush or a stammer. Her attentive audience takes it pretty well, too. After the usual smattering of giggles, the kids move on to the more interesting task at hand: performing spay surgeries on their own patients.

Though Berlin is accompanied on many of her trips by her dog, Mikey, whom she adopted in 1995, the patients undergoing surgeries in her classrooms are not what you would call "close kin" of the canine. Participation in Berlin's program requires a good dose of childlike imagination: The "animals" are actually stuffed bedroom slippers shaped like cats and dogs, with "bellies" that are already open for inspection. Berlin prepares the slippers in advance, placing felt uteruses and party-balloon bladders into the slipper pockets.

Berlin divides her classes into small groups, and then guides the children through the basics of the spay surgery. They pantomime washing their hands, they put on their veterinary scrubs—which are so oversized that the kids look like little mint-green ghosts—and then they proceed to remove the "uteruses" before suturing the slipper pockets together. Because the surgical instruments are plastic, the procedure is low-risk for all involved.

In discovering the basics of how the surgery is performed, students also learn the value of sterilizing pets. "The whole program takes thirty minutes," says Berlin, "and begins with a discussion of the major reasons for spay/neuter, [namely that] it keeps dogs and cats from having too many babies that no one can care for, it improves their health, and it improves their behavior."

Although kids tend to be giggly about sex-related topics, Berlin keeps the atmosphere serious. "I elaborate depending on the age group," she says. "I never get into the neuter surgery as I think it's best to avoid mentioning any sexual organs. . . . I don't even mention the word 'uterus' unless someone specifically asks. I just refer to it as 'the part that needs to be removed.'" Besides, Berlin adds, "You never know what some goofy adult will have to say about using actual vocabulary words."

At the end of the class, Berlin sends several reminders home with the kids, including surgical gloves from a wholesale medical company. Berlin had ordered the gloves when she first started the program, but they'd turned out to be too large and cumbersome for most of the kids. Not one to let things go to waste, Berlin turned the gloves into souvenirs, having each set stamped with a puppy and kitten holding a sign that encourages shelter adoptions and reminds people to sterilize their animals.

Also sent home with the children are materials describing the program and explaining how it fits in with the larger goals of the Port Jervis/Deerpark Humane Society. The materials ask both parents and children to sign attached forms, which read in part: "My child and I have discussed the importance of spaying or neutering dogs and cats and we agree that spay or neuter surgery is the best way to stop pet overpopulation. We know that spayed or neutered dogs and cats will be healthier, better behaved, and more content to stay around the house."

The classroom that returns the greatest number of signed forms is rewarded many times over—in the form of educated kids, educated parents, and treats and sweets to boot. All in all, says Berlin, it's worth the occasional giggle fit.


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