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Online Extra - Wider Horizons in Western Pennsylvania

Program broadens teens' attitudes about animals and life

Program broadens teens' attitudes about animals and life

When Gretchen Fieser brings small animals to the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center in Pittsburgh, sometimes the tough, inner-city teenagers staying there will let out a yelp and jump up on a chair—at the sight of a rabbit.

Gretchen Fieser of the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, often accompanied by her pit bull Joey, aims to dispel myths and promote better treatment of animals during her regular visits to Shuman Juvenile Detention Center in Pittsburgh. JAMES HETTINGER/THE HSUS

It's funny, she says, but also a little sad. Many of the young men and women at Shuman—who generally range in age from 11 to 19, and who’ve been sent there for anything from school truancy to murder—have never seen a live rabbit before. Nature's a mystery to them, and animals can be scary. Fieser, the director of public relations and business relationships for the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society (WPHS), has been visiting Shuman weekly for the past four years as part of a program that aims to dispel myths about wild and domestic animals and how they should be treated. She hopes that humane education will promote better behavior among the teens while spotlighting the possibilities for their future, including the possibility of a career in animal care. She strives to make the teens feel important, and to let them know that their residency in a detention center “"an be part of their history, but it doesn’t define who they are."

On a Tuesday afternoon in early October, Fieser enters Shuman accompanied by her usual companions, Sammy (a black Labrador), Joey (a pit bull), and Sassy (a Pomeranian), all dogs she adopted from her shelter. They walk to a brick-walled meeting room, where they’re soon joined by 20 or so male Shuman residents—dressed in blue slacks, blue shirts, white socks, and brown sandals—who take their seats in an oval of chairs.

Fieser's found over the years that many Shuman residents know pit bulls firsthand and have strong opinions about them, so she devotes a good chunk of today's talk to their history, myths, and realities. She asks the teens how they’d describe pit bulls. "Fighting dogs" and "killers" are among the answers she hears.

But Joey hardly fits that mold. He's docile and friendly as he moves among the teenagers, introducing himself nose first. He's also a certified therapy dog, and today he's wearing a jacket to protect his 13-year-old bones from the cold. Fieser, who adopted him when he was 12, says she doesn’t know for sure if he was ever used for fighting. He’s got scars on his body under his coat, but she's not sure where they came from. His ears appear to have been clipped roughly by a pair of scissors. "Think that hurt?" she asks the boys. "It did."

Fieser tells the teens she loves taking Joey out to prove that pit bulls aren't necessarily crazy or out to get you. But, she adds, "They also can be trained to do really bad things—like any dog." She tries to convince her audience that pit bulls don't have a "lockjaw"—they simply have stronger jaw muscles than other dogs, the same way that men typically have stronger muscles than women. She talks about how dogs descended from wolves, and how the domestication of wolves moved human culture forward.

As the session draws to a close, she asks if the group wants her to return on Thursday, and mentions the possibility that she'll bring a snake. The crowd wants her back, but a few teens aren't so sure about handling a snake.

"I'm not saying you have to," Fieser says. "I'm just saying give yourself a chance to experience something new. Is that cool?"

Teaching the detention center residents to widen their perspectives is the heart of the Shuman-WPHS partnership. Fieser explains in an interview that she'll bring in a black rat snake, a wild snake found in western Pennsylvania. The teens might say they’ve seen them and killed them; she’ll try to explain how the snakes are part of the environment and good for it, and sometimes the kids will vow not to kill them anymore. "It's really fascinating to see that light bulb go off," she says.

She also likes to present animal-related scenarios aimed at promoting positive behavior.

For instance, say you kick off your brand-new sneakers to watch TV with your dog. Someone comes to the door, you hang out with them for a while, and when you return your sneakers are chewed up. The dog doesn't have them in his mouth; he’s just happy to see you. What do you do?

Many of the teens, Fieser notes, will say things like: "I’d beat him." "I’d kill him." "I'd throw him out the window."

She'll explain how that type of behavior does nothing but create fear, and how the dog, if he's not caught in the act, will think you’re beating him for no reason. "So who's really at fault?" she'll ask. "Is it you because you left your shoes out? Is it you because you weren’t paying attention to your dog?" Many of the teens have plenty of negative reinforcement in their lives, Fieser says, but she tries to introduce them to positive reinforcement—"so that the first instinct is not always to go and beat something, or kick something, or yell at something.”"

WPHS hopes that the Shuman kids will learn to treat animals more humanely, Fieser says, and several of them have later volunteered at the shelter to fulfill their court-appointed community service requirements.

Raymond Robinson, Shuman's social services manager, says Fieser's visits "put a little bright spot in the day" for the residents, who have a very structured routine. "A lot of our kids come from environments where they just literally don't leave. Some of them stay within a couple blocks," Robinson says. Just as he tries to tell teens it's possible to travel more than three neighborhoods away, he says, Fieser's visits introduce them to the wider world of animals.


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