Energetic humane educator: “Bow to the cat!” (Or she’ll change you into a mouse?)

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1993:

PORT JERVIS, N.Y. –– Jan Matthews is over-
worked, and that’s the way she likes it. A classroom elementary
school teacher for 17 years, she now visits 72 classrooms a
month at four different schools, as humane educator for the
Humane Society of Port Jervis/Deerpark, New York. Her dedi-
cation is such that when her husband took a temporary job in
Alaska, she commuted between New York and Alaska for seven
months to keep her program going.
“Three of those months were during the summer,” she
explains, “when we were only visiting summer classes.”
Oh.

Matthews’ program is not just your basic pet care how-
to. “We’ve gone well beyond pet care,” she says, though that’s
covered too. Her packet on rabies, for instance, opened many
classroom doors two years ago when the mid-Atlantic raccoon
rabies pandemic moved through the Port Jervis/Deerpark area.
More often, Matthews shows children how their own
lives are involved with animals in less direct ways. “Our activi-
ties all show a relationship of some kind between humans and
animals,” she elaborates. ‘We’re in the schedule right along
with gym, music, and art, and we try to connect with whatever
else is going on at the school. For example, in October, around
Halloween, we talk about animals in superstition and myth. In
November, we look at the importance of animals to native
Americans.”
Lessons are grade-adjusted, kindergarten through
grade six, with follow-up materials provided to teachers, who
often make use of the themes Matthews has introduced in their
subsequent work.
Although some animal protection organizations criti-
cize any use of live animals in classrooms, Matthews makes a
point of bringing friendly and outgoing animals from the humane
society with her. “I always take an animal in,” she emphasizes.
The animals not only get the children’s attention; they
help with discipline. Several years ago, Matthews remembers,
she told an unruly class that the cat she had with her was in fact
an enchanted princess, and that they’d all have to bow to the cat,
who might otherwise become annoyed. The legend of the cat
princess spread. Now sixth graders, those children still bow to
her animals in fun.
There’s a benefit for the animals, too: exposure to
prospective adopters. People who want animals Matthews brings
to class still have to go to the humane society and go through the
conventional screening, but so far, she says, “We’ve had a
100% adoption rate of the animals I’ve taken in,” most of whom
are adult dogs and cats. On one rare occasion Matthews took a
puppy, who was soon adopted by the principal.
In some ways the Port Jervis/Deerpark area would seem
to be tough territory for a humane educator. “It’s a heavy hunting
area,” Matthews admits. “I have to temper my own feelings
when kids come in talking about their dads killing raccoons and
shooting deer. I do tell them about how these animals live,
explain that they exist with us, and ask them to think about it.
But I can’t say too much, because the schools don’t want propa-
ganda. I’m a vegetarian, but they don’t know it.”
Matthews is used to tough territory, having begun her
career as a humane educator with the Michigan Humane Society,
which serves both the Detroit inner city and some of Michigan’s
most heavily hunted areas. Matthews also conducted a pet thera-
py program at various Michigan nursing homes. “One of the
most gratifying teaching experiences I have had,” she notes,
“was my work with the Living Science Foundation of Novi,
Michigan. In this program I traveled around the state working
with live animals and children in order to teach biology, ecolo-
gy, and respect for living things.” Later Matthews founded her
own program, called In Touch With Nature.
[Do you know an outstanding humane educator? Send
us details––who, what, where, when, why, and how, along
with a photo. We hope to profile a number of humane educators
and their methods in our fall back-to-school issue. Please don’t
put off making contact: we need time to do our homework.]
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