Humane educator Judy Crumpton has always believed in the power of informed discussion of literature to help children relate to one another. When she lived in Huntington Beach in 1980, she worked as a preschool teacher and a children’s library clerk. Her favorite part of the job was story hour.
“I saw firsthand the love children have for being read to, especially if the books are about animals,” said Crumpton, now a longtime resident of Long Beach.
Animals and their welfare have been central to everything Crumpton has engaged in since forever ago. She was a member of the Mayor’s Animal Care Visioning Task Force throughout its existence, and back when the Long Beach Post was in a closet-size office on Second Street in Belmont Shore, she was my co-writer for The Scratching Post, then called the Pet Post. She showed me, as I always say, where the bones were buried and introduced me to most of the people I write about and get information from.
Crumpton was taken with humane education when she became involved with animal welfare, and she dived right in. She became a member of the Association of Professional Humane Educators and acquired a seat on the advisory council for the Humane Education Coalition, a global alliance dedicated to developing humane practices in human beings. Crumpton passionately wanted to create and implement a humane education program in Long Beach schools that would go beyond a didactic approach of reading a book, talking about it, and considering the job done—the children would become immediately empathetic and plot to run away to Tanzania to join up with Jane Goodall.
“I always wanted to be in the schools, and this thing popped into my head,” Crumpton said.
Crumpton’s minor cranial explosion was in the form of RedRover Readers, a literature-based humane-education program that’s astounding in its scope and detail. Its umbrella organization, RedRover.org, provides care for animals in need of supplies and who are victims of disaster or domestic violence. When Crumpton learned of RedRover,org and the Readers, she felt that it would be a perfect fit for the district’s schools, particularly as one of the WRAP after-school expanded learning programs. WRAP is a combined effort of the Long Beach Unified School District, the city’s Parks, Recreation and Marine Department, and several other youth-based clubs and organizations.
The Parks Department was impressed with the program, and Crumpton set to work getting all the ducks in a row and all the cats herded. Pandemic restrictions put a slight damper on its rollout but it didn’t stop holding the training sessions and classes on Zoom.
“RedRover Readers was actually supposed to start right before the pandemic started,” said Ted Stevens, superintendent of Recreation Programs for the Parks Department. “Then, when everything shut down, it postponed everything. Red Rovers had to figure out how to do their training and everything else online. It’s virtual so far, and we hope to open it up [to in-person classes] when the schools do.”
RedRover Readers provides an interactive reading experience for students in kindergarten through grade 6. The program was developed in 2007 after RedRover CEO Nicole Forsyth recognized a need for humane education in the animal-welfare and education fields. Forsyth and the organization’s education director, former English language arts instructor Alexa Mergen, created the initial program, gradually growing it to a full team of six professionals who lead discussions and train educators, staff and community members to also be discussion leaders.
The program’s goals are developing empathy and literary skills in children.
“It’s about making connections,” said RedRover education coordinator Tara Lenehan. “Empathy is feeling with someone. Sympathy is silver-lining it—understanding but not necessarily want to feel with someone.”
Discussion and activities center on a psychological construct of three types of empathy: cognitive—recognizing emotional states In others, as demonstrated in the stories; affective—recognizing the states in ourselves; and integration—how we act upon the knowledge.
“This program helps children gain empathy skills toward animals and, in turn, humans,” said Caty Franco, RedRover’s education and marketing coordinator. “Kids are naturally attracted to animals—they can’t talk, but they can communicate, and this program shows them how. It’s more than just reading a book.”
The books used in RedRover Readers show animals as real animals in real-life environments instead of talking cartoons with cats and dogs holding up one toe and saying, “Now, remember, boys and girls …” The realistic qualities of the books, Lenehan said, help the discussion leaders focus on the questions and the listeners’ responses.
Grants and donations pay for the books and other components. Crumpton’s family provided the entire funding for Long Beach’s program.
The program itself is a regular warren of rabbit holes to fall down and lose yourself in. The books tell stories of dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, hens and guinea pigs in situations involving cruelty, neglect and rescue. A monthly magazine, Kind News, features stories and activities for children and parents. During summer 2019, a donation of 500 back issues was made to Parks and Recreation for after-school programs.
“The kids loved them!” Crumpton said.
The unique interactive Empathy app offers reading, fun facts, activities, high-level questions and games. The first two books can be downloaded free of charge; the third costs 99 cents. The app consists of a three-part graphic series in English and Spanish called “The Restricted Adventures of Raja.” Raja is a catlike creature living in a parallel world resembling ancient Egypt with his equally felinesque associates and frenemies. He pilfers a forbidden tome from the restricted section of the library and finds himself whooshed to present-day Earth, disguised as a regular old cat tasked with helping his new friends. The app focuses on human and animal emotions and what everyone, human and animal, need to be safe and healthy. Yeah, they’re anthropomorphic as all get-out, but they adhere to the curriculum and they push the empathy button nonstop. Besides, they’re graphic-book fantasies, so what the heck.
“They can be read on iPads at home with parents, but my favorite way to read them in classrooms is to put them on the projector and read to the entire classroom, then read together, and answer the questions when they pop up,” Lenehan said. “They love the graphic novel aspect of it.”
In February, I got to sit in on one of the training programs for the Parks Department staff members participating in the WRAP program. Lenehan, who moderated the Zoom discussion, shared screens of the book “Buddy Unchained,” which tells the backstory of a rescued dog who had been neglected and abused by his former owners.
Then, Lenehan demonstrated how to come up with open-ended, nonleading questions that focus on feelings and thoughts of humans and animals, evoking empathy and attending to perspective. Instead of asking “How many people were in Buddy’s new family?” or “What color was the dog?” we responded to questions like “Have you ever seen anyone being cruel to an animal like they were to Buddy? Describe it, and did you do anything about it?” “Why do you think the family chained Buddy up?” “How would you feel if you were chained up like Buddy?”
Lenehan said that responses that the children give should be addressed and accepted but not considered as either correct or incorrect and not be judged in any way. Some responses from a listener, she said, could be turned back to the rest of the class for their own views and further discussion about kindness or, in some instances, could alert the teacher to human or animal abuse at home.
Lenehan instructed the group to read any of the books before discussing them with students to avoid our own tears and flatten our feelings a bit. Even though it might not be a bad thing to have a good cry over an animal in front of children, she stressed that the focus must be on the kids and not ourselves. If a child should cry, the leader shouldn’t comment on the tears and avoid drawing attention to the child or blocking their feelings. Of course, during the Buddy reading, I was sobbing, and Lenehan was choking up noticeably.
We then divided into Zoom rooms , read another book, and came up with questions. We shared them as a large group and commented on them. Without judgment, of course. If I didn’t have so many biscuits in my bowl, I’d sit up and beg to be a leader.
Besides discussing the books, leaders can add activities and realia to reinforce the concepts in each one. Crumpton once brought a short chain to a discussion of “Buddy Unchained.” Activities and quizzes from “Kind News.” art, science activities, role-play, letter writing and visits from shelter or rescue representatives (who might even bring a pet along!) all add dimension to the objectives of developing kindness and empathy toward people and animals.
Crumpton hopes to train every staff member in the WRAP program. She said that working with RedRover Readers has been one of the most rewarding experiences she’s had with humane education. Her goal is to have the program in every parks and recreation department throughout California.
“Programs like this have the potential to curtail violent behavior and may help pave the way for children to make kind choices throughout their lives,” she said.
We can all use a lot of that nowadays.
Developing a humane education program is one of the objectives of the Long Beach Animal Care Services’ Strategic Plan. The shelter will likely come up with its own plans, and the RedRover Readers will surely complement it.
“I think it’s a great program and a great opportunity in the long run,” Stevens said. “It should help our Animal Care Services Bureau to have a community that‘s better educated about the animals For sure, the kids will filter it back up. My kids have seen a lot of it firsthand.”
Stevens is the former manager of Long Beach Animal Care Services and the father of two boys and a dog.
Crumpton is realistic in considering that you can’t reach 100% of the children. Some kids will insist on live Easter bunnies even after The Forgotten Rabbit has been read, discussed, and wept over.
“Sadly, no—we can’t reach them all. You can only do so much,” Crumpton said. “[The] lessons have to be constant and repetitious, but if you get them to realize it, they’ll make kind choices. At the very minimum, children will realize that animals have feelings, too. They’re not ‘its.’ They’re like us, and they’re different from us. They need food and care, but they can’t take themselves to the market or vet. And they’re a lifetime commitment. When you’re tired of them, you can’t just get rid of them or put them on a shelf.”
And at the maximum?
“That they wind up helping us end the suffering for pets involved in domestic violence. If you can instill that wonderful empathy in a child, it will end it all for them.”