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CA Press:Kids get to learn about animals firsthand

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Posted by desiree on November 05, 2002 at 10:36:47:

Kids get to learn about animals firsthand

By Cheryl Walker

November 2, 2002

ESCONDIDO Lizards, rats and snakes, oh my!

And little children, too.

Making the connection between the small people and small animals is Critter Connection, a program sponsored by the Escondido Humane Society and the city of Escondido.

"It's a great way for children to learn about animals they may never come in contact with," said Ina Shookhoff, director of education at the society. "They learn what animals make good pets and which ones should be left alone in the wild. A lot of young children don't know the difference between a stuffed animal and a real one."

Critter Connection is offered in age-appropriate sessions. One class is for 2-to 4-year-olds and the other is for children 5-7. The next round of classes will be offered in January at the Mathes Center in Escondido.

During a recent session, children were introduced to Fred and Barney, two bearded dragons. Shookhoff began the class by teaching the children a song, "Living Creatures Need to Eat," sung to the tune of "Old MacDonald's Farm." Then she read them a story. Youngsters patiently listened and waited for the moment when the dragons would make their appearance.

As Shookhoff took the bearded dragons out of their cages, she talked about what the animals eat, and their ears, skin and orange tongue. One by one, each child got a turn counting the lizard's fingernails and learned how to gently pet the animal. None of them appeared afraid to touch the lizards.

"If you see lizards that are outside, leave the lizard alone," Shookhoff said. "Those are wild lizards, and they need to be left alone. These lizards I have today are our pets."

After each child had a chance to pet the animals, Shookhoff took the kids over to a table where they drew pictures and painted with watercolors.

"I liked touching them," said 2 1/2-year-old Kyle Brown of Escondido, who wore his special lizard T-shirt for the occasion. "You have to be gentle with them."

The session was the second time that Amy Molenaar had signed up her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Lily, for the class.

"She really likes animals. Her grandmother raises cats so I think that's where she got the interest," Molenaar said. "She's always excited to go to class, and she looks forward to the next animal."

Sara Needham was pleased with the education her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Kate, was getting. She plans to sign up her 10 1/2-month-old daughter, Nicki, when she is old enough.

"Kate is crazy about animals. That's all she plays with at home, plastic and stuffed animals. She spends a lot of time looking through animal books," Needham said. "This way she gets to experience all kinds of animals, and it's also a good opportunity for her to socialize with other kids her age."

Shookhoff has been doing pet education at the humane society for seven years. She was a teacher in the Poway Unified School District when she began volunteering at the society. When the society needed a director of education, she gladly stepped in.

"I've always loved animals," she said. "This is a basic program and it's very age appropriate. This teaches them so many things how to act around animals, not to jump on a dog or not to squish a bug if they don't have to."

Shookhoff enjoys watching the children learn about each animal. One time she took millipedes to class.

"They all laid down on the floor on their tummies to look at them. They were fascinated with all their legs and it was precious to see the looks on their faces. I think it's important to have these classes. If we just plant the seed so that children remember something about how to treat them, maybe an animal out there will be better off because of it."

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