Saving Lives

Cats, Kids, Reading = Enrichment, Adoptions, Compassion

Picture this: A kid enters a shelter cat room, cozies up in a cushioned corner with the book of his choice, and begins to read aloud. Before long some cats cuddle up to him while others linger nearby, ears perked.

What's happening in this scenario: The cats are learning social skills that will help them get adopted; the child is learning to care about animals; the shelter is strengthening relationships in the community.


A Novel Approach

Proving we can't let dogs have all the fun, Animal Rescue League of Berks County's (ARLBC) "Book Buddies" program is a hit: Cat adoptions have increased, and the program – which started in August, 2013 – even went viral when it was picked up by major news outlets. Take inspiration from the Birdsboro, PA, agency, and give a program like this a try!

Readers at ARLBC are between the ages of 5 and 13, and all minors must sign a general liability waiver and be supervised by parents at all times. Not only is the program free, but kids win prizes donated by local businesses by earning raffle tickets for every five books they complete.

"Reading sessions can last as long as the children may like, but we encourage our readers to spend at least 15 minutes reading to the cats. We tell them the cats prefer it that way, but really it's so they have a better opportunity to sharpen their reading skills," says Executive Director Judd Meinhart.

While cat rooms are the favored location for story time, this sweet boy likes to read to the cats in the cages because he doesn't want them to feel left out – note the tiny paws sticking out in approval!

Kid Selected, Kitty Approved

ARLBC houses 20 cats in individual cages, plus four cat colonies that are each occupied by feline residents. When kids come in to read, they get to choose which colony to hang out in.

Kids also have the freedom to select their own reading material. The shelter has a stash of books that have been donated by their local library, but kids may bring their own books if they prefer. According to ARLBC, the cats don't care about a child's reading level or taste in genre – they simply enjoy the soothing sounds of kids reading to them. That lack of judgment and pressure is part of what makes the program so popular for young ones.

KISS (Keep It Simple, Shelter)

There is no pre-registration required, which means kids can just show up, sign in and read whenever they'd like. As an exception, ARLBC does ask large groups (school trips, scout troops) to call ahead, since they set a limit of three readers per cat colony.

While staff is always on hand to help out, Meinhart says there isn't much additional time required to manage the program, since children are supervised by their parents at all times. "We do have one full-time program coordinator who oversees Book Buddies as part of her responsibilities," he adds.

Spreading the Word

Starting a Book Buddies program is a wonderful way to welcome the community into your shelter.  Market the program on your website and social media, and reach out to schools, youth groups and churches. "It's a great way to gain exposure and deepen your relationship with the community that supports you," says Meinhart. "We've had quite a few adoptions result from parents bringing their kids to the shelter."

Cat enrichment, child literacy, fostering compassion for animals in young people – there's pretty much nothing about this program that isn't a marketing goldmine. Once the media picked up the Book Buddies program, ARLBC's website got so many hits that the site was put temporarily out of commission! At the same time, donated items from the agency's Amazon wish list came pouring in.

For similar results, you'll want great photos of kids reading to your cats, testimonials from parents that speak to kids' increased confidence and reading skills, and some good quotes from kids themselves! Check out ARLBC's program page for excellent examples of all of these.

All photos courtesy of Animal Rescue League of Berks County

More Lifesaving Resources

Read and Relax, Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland's reading program for dogs.