Kids, cats and education

February 24, 2014

Birdsboro, Pennsylvania
By Mark Makela

It was my editor Chris Helgren who told me about the “Book Buddies” program, where children in the Pennsylvania town of Birdsboro read to cats up for adoption at an animal shelter. The assignment was a gift – unusual, humorous, endearing, with universal appeal.

The Animal Rescue League of Berks County has been running this program for six months, and is less than an hour’s drive away from my home, but I had never heard of it. This was a perfect illustration of that hackneyed but apt idiom that great stories are in your backyard, but can be so easily overlooked.

The scheme began in August 2013 after Kristi Rodriguez, an employee of the shelter, brought her son in to read to the cats. He enjoyed the experience so much that he wanted to come back. Now there are about three-dozen students in grades 1-8 who regularly participate.

Widespread interest in this story first grew around a fortnight ago, when a parent posted a photo of her son reading to a cat nestled up beside him. When I went to document the shelter myself, I wanted to capture a complete photo narrative of “Book Buddies”. I hunted for the key shots, especially any comic juxtapositions, and then I tried to make linking images to smooth out the transitions from photo to photo in the final set.

Cats were everywhere! Tabbies mostly, of different sizes, ages, colors, and dispositions. Most enclosures held five or six animals and all of them were friendly, with no hisses or conflict in sight. For me it was surprising, because all of my cats over the years just can’t seem to get along.

According to researchers at Tufts University, the animals can be a reassuring presence, providing support and comfort to the young readers without judging them. Students have showed sustained focus and improved attitudes toward school, the experts said.

The affection that the children had for the cats was clear and was obviously reciprocated by the animals themselves, who purred as the pages turned. The cats interacted with the children in all sorts of ways and assumed different positions as they listened – they were fully engaged by story time. Not surprisingly, I learned that some children have become so attached to the cats that their families have adopted them.

There were plenty of comical moments. The most priceless was when “Stewart,” the oldest tabby at the shelter, perched above a pair of boys reading The Cat in the Hat, as if to give himself the best possible view of Dr. Seuss’s timeless illustrations.

Another moment when I struggled to contain my laughter was when a wide-faced orange tabby stared intently at a picture book entitled Dogs Can’t Read.

I was lucky to capture lots of “all in one” moments, which explained much of the story in a single frame. This is something I always try to find, but don’t manage on every assignment.

Once photos are sent out to clients on the newswire it’s a marvel where they end up. These photos were profiled by the three largest U.S. television networks: ABC (Good Morning America), CBS News, and NBC (The Today Show), as well as The Atlantic, and numerous other international publications.

As a result of this newfound media attention, shelters in other cities have been inspired to start similar programs.

So cuddle up with your cat, or any pet, for that matter, select a favorite book, secure a fireside nook, and assume the role of a read-aloud bibliophile. Your furry friends will thank you for it!

One comment

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Interesting photos. Looks like there is a lot going on here. Everyone gets something out of this deal.

Posted by RobertKnapp | Report as abusive