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Providing a Higher Kind of Learning

In Illinois, the Tails Humane Society has gone to college—to teach 

In Illinois, the Tails Humane Society has gone to college—to teach 

Calls to the Tails Humane Society increased dramatically after the group hung this poster around the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb County. Tails initiated the campaign to try to stem the tide of animal abandonment at the end of each spring semester.

Each year in May, on university campuses across the country, the human population dwindles to near zero as new graduates head out into the world and other students head home for summer break. But each year as that human population drops, another segment of the population remains in stasis: the animals students frequently leave behind.

Since many colleges and universities forbid students from keeping pets, the lives of dorm-bound animals are often marked by confinement and secrecy: furtive poop walks near midnight, the litter box hidden under the bed so the resident dorm chaperone won’t see it. But frequently, the aftermath of these animals’ lives with their student companions is even worse: abandonment when the kids realize that Scout will be hard to transport across the country or that Freckles won’t be welcome at home.

The phenomenon is no different in DeKalb County, Illinois, where Kathy Stelford, president of Tails Humane Society, noticed the sudden increase in the number of stray animals. “There was an obvious increase at the end of every spring semester at Northern Illinois University,” says Stelford. “I run a wildlife center out in rural DeKalb County, and along with seeing animals in this area—extra cats, extra dogs—I’d be getting calls from people saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got this ferret, we’ve got this bunny, we’ve got this repta-lizard,’ and always, always at the beginning of May.” Stelford checked with the local shelter and with animal control and found that they were seeing the same problems. “We even got several calls last year where people had left snakes in college apartments—I mean, we’re talking about two 6-foot rainbow pythons, and the landlord called me and he wasn’t even going to go into the place until the snakes were removed,” says Stelford.

Since Tails is in the process of raising money to build a shelter, says Stelford, the group’s main focus has been educational work and other community outreach-oriented projects that will help increase its credibility. Recognizing a problem that needed tackling, Stelford and her colleagues ended up collaborating with an animal-loving graduate student involved in the public relations society at the university.

From this cooperative effort, a campus campaign educating students about the dangers of animal abandonment was born. Tails issued news releases, and students and volunteers put up posters all over the university telling people, “If you love something, don’t set it free!” The posters provided a contact number for a Tails representative on campus and urged students to take pets to local shelters rather than abandon them. While Stelford feels the campaign didn’t reach as many people as Tails would have liked, she says the result was great in terms of public relations—calls to Tails increased dramatically, in spite of the fact that the society does not yet have a sheltering facility.

Tails has also found some real friends in the university’s administrators, who thought the campaign was a great idea and have welcomed Tails to come back in the fall. Convinced they can reach more students, Stelford and her crew are planning to go further with the campaign when the new academic year starts by providing educational materials at orientation that will encourage students not to purchase pets. Acknowledging that many kids away from home for the first time miss their companion animals, Stelford says that material from Tails will suggest alternatives, such as volunteering at a shelter or other organization that has animals, offering to walk dogs for senior citizens, or providing care for pets whose owners are on vacation.


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