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Maria Lights the Way


service learningBrandy Price is principal of a Little Engine That Could charter school in Canoga Park, California. She recently adopted a beautiful Chihuahua, Kona, from a local shelter.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Mahatma Ghandhi 

The burgeoning nature of the animal rights movement in the United States can be evidenced by your response to the following question: How many of you have an adopted animal in your home or know someone with an adopted animal in their home? The odds are that you responded with a yes.

Movements by more extreme groups such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and more politically palatable group such as the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) have resulted in far more awareness of the horrible conditions in which shelter animals live and, if lucky, escape.

Statistics tell us that 80% of cats that end up in shelters never get out. The numbers are far worse for bunnies whose jail sentences multiply just after Easter once their novelty has worn off and the candy has run out.

Billboards across the city broadcast the message that “Adoption is the only option.” For the countless homeless animals sitting on death row, this meme cannot come fast enough. The message is being received. In the past two years, the percentage of dogs and cats that were adopted from shelters has risen from 27% to 29%.

I am the principal of a small charter school in Canoga Park, California. One day I found a group of first graders hunched over a plant in our reading garden. It was immediately after school and the crowd was growing.  This level of crowd interest generally signals a fight, but the students were oddly silent.

What I discovered that all eyes were on a six year old boy that was using a small leaf to “rescue” a worm that had fallen out of a planter.

Times are changing and for the better. When I was growing up, boys in the neighborhood smashed snails with their shoes to hear the sad crunch of the helpless gastropod.

The changing dynamics of human relationships with less complex life forms did not escape our sixth graders. At my school, we have a 20-hour service-learning requirement. Needless to say, most students far exceed the minimum.

Students may fulfill the requirement through field trips or on weekends in activities guided by teachers. The main element of the requirement is that students choose their area of interest (almost inevitably a societal challenge) and go about identifying root causes of the problem. We then ask students to spread the message.


One day, Maria, one of just thirteen sixth graders at my school, came to me and asked if she could start a Pit bull Club. In Maria’s estimation, pit bulls get a very bad rap. “They aren’t like that, it’s just that people train them to attack.”  Apparently, Maria had seen a commercial. Rescue groups are working over time to change perception, even renaming the animals “Kiss bulls.”

Until then, I had paid only peripheral attention to stories of pit bulls gone wild. Sure, for a long time, every news story seemed to be punctuated with the story of a formerly docile family pet ripping at a defenseless toddler. During that time, if you predicted a pit bull as the television villain, nine out of 10 tines, you would have been correct.

As someone disinclined to larger dogs, the news never appeared particularly relevant to me. I’m sure there were dogs doing some attacking at that time, but a wave was washing over American and the message was that pit bulls were bad. Certainly it was easier to blame the dog than irresponsible parents. This is not to suggest that poor parenting was at the core of all of those attacks. Even good dogs (like good children) can make terrible choices.

After Maria and I discussed the club, she embarked on some research and discovered that pit bulls often end up in shelters and, due to their nasty reputation, rarely get out.

Maria’s perspective broadened in her research on pit bulls and, ultimately, decided that the larger problem is overcrowding in shelters—the type of overcrowding that leads to the death of completely healthy puppies of all breeds once space wears thin.

The idea that we would, as a culture, condone the execution (the shelters use “destruction” as it connotes that property, rather than a living entity, has been lost) of voiceless and healthy animals overwhelmed Maria. She decided to do something.

At our school, we often reinforce to students that knowledge is only the first step in a long journey. Our Shared Vision, collaboratively developed with families, students and teachers, ignites students to move their knowledge into action to improve the world.

Under the guidance of our sixth grade teacher, Maria set about to put together a presentation that she might share with peers. The goal was change. Anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

In her research, Maria traced animal homelessness to a number of causes, including individuals assuming the responsibility of taking care of an animal without understanding the level of commitment and money that pet care entails. Pets are costly, require a lot of attention, and, if we are fortunate, remain with us for years and years.

Maria’s research then took a turn. She decided to present to her peers on the many challenges and expenses of having a pet. Her goal was to discourage people who were not ready to adopt a pet to understand that fact. “I don’t want people to just take an animal and then give it away or take it to a shelter because it costs too much,” she told me.

The success of her work came a few months later. One of Maria’s fellow students Linda was making a “Found” poster. Apparently, she and her mother had found a stray dog. They immediately took it in. From the picture on the poster, the dog had been lost for a very long time, appearing malnourished with jutting ribs and a sad disposition.

I asked Linda if she and her mom planned to keep the dog and she said, “We’re not ready to adopt a dog because we live in an apartment and we don’t have money for a veterinarian if the dog gets really sick.”

Instead, they planned to keep the dog until they found its former owner or someone to adopt it.  Maria’s dedication had paid off.

If you ask Maria what she wants to be when she grows up, she will say, “a park ranger, a veterinarian, or an animal cop.”

It is my firm belief that an integral responsibility of ours as educators is to help students uncover their passion.  We succeeded with Maria who took our guidance and turned her passion into something extraordinary.

Maria has graduated to seventh grade now, but promises to continue her work in educating her peers about the responsibilities of having a pet. Knowledge has a domino effect. Each life Maria touches will touch so many others. 

Just as Linda became a representative of Maria’s passion, I am now a messenger too.

Pets are wonderful companions and they are worth sacrifices to have them join our families, but they are not items to be discarded or living things to be taken lightly. Pet ownership, as Maria argued to her peers, is a privilege and we must all go about earning it.

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