At a Boys & Girls Club in North Philadelphia, there’s a small animal zoo that’s doing big things. Run by the Caring People Alliance, the zoo’s bunnies, guinea pigs and pet rats teach youth about responsible pet ownership, build compassion for animals, and provide a space for troubled kids to relax and reset.
“Every day, I feel like I am making a difference, both to the kids and the animals,” says Jessica Bachrach, who serves as the coordinator for the program, called Caring Paws. “Sometimes we talk about the animals, but other times, we’ll talk about things that are going on in the world or in their lives.” Often, the animals serve as a bridge to important life lessons.
Given the animals’ relatively short life spans, nearly every child experiences the sorrow associated with saying goodbye to a beloved animal friend. “For some kids, it may be their first experience with death; for others, it’s an opportunity to talk about the death of a friend or family member,” Jessica explains. “We work through all those hard feelings together.”
When the children talk about how Caring Paws has impacted them, many say that it’s fun or they like helping to care for the animals. But some find bigger lessons, too. Before Sophia started participating in Caring Paws, she was afraid of rats. Now, she’s discovered that it’s not fair to judge animals based on their reputation. “I learned that not all animals are what they seem to be,” she explains and admits that the pet rats are now among her favorite Caring Paws critters.
That’s part of the magic at Caring Paws, where kids learn as much about themselves as the animals they care for. “Animals have a unique power to impact the lives of people,” Jessica emphasizes. “They depend on us for everything, so taking care of them can be empowering.” No matter your age, it seems we could all learn a thing or two from the kids and animals at Caring Paws.