'I want to take them all home'

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Snodland primary go behind the scenes of an RSPCA centre while Jonathan Croall watches.

Snowy is under the vet. Scrumpy is a third of his weight, and his owner is being prosecuted. Pebbles is looking for a retirement home. Sad cases, all of them.

Once inside the RSPCA's Leybourne Animal Centre it's hard not to be affected by the plight of the scores of neglected or injured creatures. A group of Year 6 pupils, visiting from the nearby Snodland primary school, certainly empathise. "I want to take them all home," says one bright-eyed girl to her friend.

The staff try to find new homes for as many animals as possible. But one reason for having school groups in is to get children thinking realistically, rather than sentimentally, about their needs. "They tend to see pets as little bundles of fluff, not realising how much care they need," says education officer Julie Leeks. "They're surprised how strict we are about finding the right homes for the animals."

The centre, opened five years ago, is a cluster of attractive modern buildings set in flat, open Kent countryside. It consists of a cattery, a dog house with large exercise areas, and a row of cages for smaller animals, all immaculately maintained. There's also a fully equipped operating theatre and a vet who comes in twice a week.

The animals generally stay here briefly to make an initial recovery from their trauma. Most are domestic. The wild ones go on to Mallydams Wood in East Sussex, another of the RSPCA's 15 animal centres, with more sophisticated rehabilitation facilities.

It's widely assumed that the RSPCA is mainly concerned with rescuing mistreated cats and dogs. In fact it deals with an extraordinary range of animals, including badgers, lizards, swans, pigs, ducks, goats, birds, hedgehogs, gekkos and hamsters.

"Animal welfare should be accessible to all," says David Williams, the RSPCA's national education adviser. "Education has been a core concept from the beginning." That beginning was in 1824, when a group including the celebrated anti-slavery MP William Wilberforce met in a London coffee house inappropriately named Slaughters. There they established the society on the basis that "All animals are precious".

This is very much the message of today's introductory session in the classroom at Leybourne. "Most of the animals are here because human beings don't want them any more, so they're not very happy," Julie Leeks explains. She then outlines some safety precautions, especially the need to keep fingers away from cages.

Doug Waller, one of the RSPCA's 50 school liaison officers, then takes over. "How many of you watch Pet Rescue?" he asks. All hands go up, so he has a captive audience. He encourages the children to think about different types of cruelty to animals, about the verbal as well as the physical, and about the less obvious but equally damaging form, neglect.

Before heading off to the cattery the group watches a hard-hitting video, featuring several disturbing cases of animal cruelty: dogs suffering from neglect, a string of horses mistreated by their owner, and a snake unable to shed its skin because it's been deprived of water. The children are riveted.

They're then given the task of finding two animals in the centre, based on a minimum of given information. They peer eagerly at the cards hanging on the outside of each cage, which provide details of the animal's character, sociability, eating and drinking habits, and recommendations for re-homing:

"Should go to training classes", "Loves to travel", "Not to go with other cats".

Afterwards the group's class teacher Michael Allen talks enthusiastically about the benefits of the visit. "Because children are so naturally keen on animals, this kind of trip brings out different facets of their personalities," he says. "A lot of children who don't say much in class feel safer in these kind of surroundings. The animals are non-threatening, so they're able to talk more about their feelings. And a lot of the lower-ability ones are able to succeed with the tasks involved."

Many of the courses at Leybourne tie in directly with the National Curriculum. The staff also run courses under the literacy and numeracy hour banner, using animal welfare as the topic.

Nationally, the RSPCA runs a partnership school scheme and an animal-friendly schools award, and has a youth membership scheme. Except at Mallydams, visits and resources are free.

ContactRSPCA Leybourne Animal Centre, 199 Castle Way, Leybourne, West Malling, Kent ME19 5HW. Tel: 01732 521591Web: www.rspca.org.ukHalf day and day courses tailored to individual schools. Visits free.Similar attractionsMallydams Wood, Peter James Lane, Fairlight, Nr Hastings, East Sussex TN35 4AH Tel: 01424 812055 Day and residential courses, training courses for teachers. Pre-visit required. For details of courses at the society's other centres contact the RSPCA head office, Wilberforce Way, Southwater, Horsham West Sussex RH13 7WN Tel: 0870 0 101 181 The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds education department, The Lodge Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2DL Tel:l 01767 680551 Web: www.rspb.org.uk. The RSPB offers a field teaching programme on 34 reserves and other sites throughout the UK.

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