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Chris Rosenblum: Children, feline fiction fans benefit from new PAWS program

The Centre County PAWS Reading Program provides an opportunity for elementary-aged students to come to PAWS and read to cats, an activity that has proved beneficial to both parties.
The Centre County PAWS Reading Program provides an opportunity for elementary-aged students to come to PAWS and read to cats, an activity that has proved beneficial to both parties. Photo provided

Even as teenagers, my two sons still enjoy the nighttime ritual of story reading.

The books have changed to science fiction, fantasy and mysteries, but the pleasure of hearing stories read aloud before bed has remained from their younger years. It’s fun for me also to add dramatic pauses and come up with different voices.

Someone else likes the show as well.

Inevitably, our cat Perseus wanders into the room, hops on the bed and forms a ball of black fur on my lap. Instead of dozing, he stares up at me, purring.

Who knows what’s going on behind those yellow eyes? Maybe he just wants to be fed. But he seems to be following the stories. I’ll never know for sure, because he ignores all my comprehension questions.

Evidently, he’s not the only feline fiction fan in town.

Centre County PAWS shelter cats also find themselves caught up in good books, now that they have a reading program of their own.

I’m not reporting that they’re curled up reading “Puss In Boots” or “The Aristocats” — talk about burying the lead. Elementary school children do the honors. They’re invited to come to the College Township shelter at 1401 Trout Road and read to kitties from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. the first and third Tuesdays of each month.

Both sides benefit. Children get to practice their reading in a non-threatening environment. Their audiences may move around and even bolt across the room like the crazed cat at the end of “Inside Out,” but it’s nothing personal. The bug on the wall was irresistible.

Then again, cats couldn’t care less about pronunciation and grammar.

“The cats aren’t going to correct the children if they don’t read something right,” shelter supervisor Catherine Conlan said.

Donna Clapper, a retired teacher and PAWS volunteer on the reading program committee, said the program can help hesitant readers become more proficient and confident.

“Because animals are not going to judge them,” she said. “It’s a really good way to encourage children to read and feel good about it.”

As for the cats, they gain company. I’m reminded of the old Far Side cartoon in which a dog hears only its name while its owner speaks and a cat hears ... a blank speech balloon. It’s an unfair stereotype: the aloof feline. Anyone who has cats knows they’re responsive and affectionate. And I know at least one who loves listening to a human voice.

Clapper said research has shown that’s true for pets as a whole, especially with reading aloud.

“It’s very calming for them,” she said, noting that’s especially so for shy cats unused to attention. “It’s a very good thing for them. It’s a way that they can be socialized. For animals that haven’t been around people, it gives them a chance to become more comfortable.”

It all stems from a partnership with Park Forest Elementary School, begun last year as a Girl Scout service project. Children came to the shelter during school days to read, but when the state mandated that parent volunteers needed clearances for the trips, they fell by the wayside.

Meanwhile, the shelter was receiving requests from other local schools to read to the cats. Evening story times seemed to be the answer.

“Interest was starting to be enough that we decided we wanted to expand it to the community,” Conlan said.

Started earlier this year, the program is picking up; five children are scheduled for the next session Tuesday. Readers must register with Clapper through the PAWS website. Adult accompaniment is required at the shelter, but a volunteer always is on hand to choose appropriate cats.

Children may bring their own books — “The Incredible Journey” is a sure hit — or choose from the shelter’s selection. Feline protagonists are not necessary, but pictures are good, especially of songbirds and small rodents.

Readers can stay for as long as they wish or the entire hour. They’re also free to depart from the script and create their own adventure.

“Some of them will forget that they’re supposed to be reading,” Clapper said. “And they get into petting and loving, and that’s OK.”

Chris Rosenblum writes about local people, places and events. Send column ideas to him at chrisrosenblum@comcast.net.

On the Web:

www.centrecountypaws.org

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