It’s no secret that stray animals can pose a problem for communities, and more often than not, they don’t receive proper care. In December alone, Dallas Animal Services received more than 900 calls about loose stray animals. Richland Collegiate High School senior Divya Lal saw it firsthand in South Dallas, and recounts spotting about 10 stray dogs in a span of only 20 minutes. Lal took action on this issue by creating a pet education program for elementary-age kids as part of her Girl Scouts Gold Award activities.
Launched in 2017 in partnership with animal rescue organizations Take Me Home Pet Rescue and Duck Team 6, the Junior Duck Solution Squad has presented its kid-centered curriculum at local recreation centers and schools with high concentrations of stray animals in the area, such as the Juanita J. Craft Recreation Center in South Dallas, La Academia de Estrellas in Oak Cliff and Balch Springs Recreation Center. We sat down with Lal to discuss the program that earned her the Girl Scouts’ 2018 Young Women of Distinction award and how it’s inspiring the next generation to speak up and properly care for our furry friends.
What motivated you to partner with Take Me Home Pet Rescue and Duck Team 6 to create this program for kids?
When volunteering at animal shelters, I would often see a trend in the parents and kids who would come in to adopt. Parents carelessly adopted a pet—uninformed of the responsibilities that come with pet ownership—and would leave the ownership responsibilities to their young child. I felt that by teaching kids, they would feel more motivated to take better care of their own pets, inform others on the issues they see within their own community regarding strays and make better decisions in the future regarding pet ownership.
Where does your passion for pets come from?
I’ve always loved animals. My mom says I’m the one who convinced them to get a dog. I want to be able to take care of it and I want to raise it, all that kind of stuff. Every time we had to volunteer, sometimes for school, I was like, “Yep, animal shelter—that’s where I am going.” I loved spending time with animals.
What does your education program for children involve?
We started out just talking about the problem—we told them how there were a lot of stray dogs and cats here. We teach them new vocabulary words and associate them with proper pet care; we had words like abandoned. We also had math sheets, coloring sheets, reading sheets—all based around animals. We wanted to keep it upbeat. We did one game where it’s like a dog-bone race. They have a spoon, dog biscuits and they have to put them into a bucket and race. We did one that’s more educational, where it was who can pick the best word for this, who can describe what’s going on with this. Each day we did four or five different things. Some of them were games, coloring sheets, learning stuff—back and forth with those three, mainly.
What feedback have you gotten so far?
When we started the program, we did pre-surveys to know what kids knew about proper pet care, spaying and neutering—the answers we got were little to none. We were like, “Is it OK to keep a dog outside in the cold?” and they [responded] yes. We ended up doing post-surveys after we taught them everything—different questions, kind of similar—but we got so much better feedback. It showed that they learned so much. We still get messages and emails from the recreation centers and they’re like, “Oh hey, someone just talked to me about spaying and neutering.” You see [the kids] applying it.
How do you think parents can engage their children in these conversations at home?
Most of the time, it’s a kid who wants a dog. When I was younger, I really wanted a dog. My parents were like, “Do you understand the responsibility of it? It’s a lot more than you think it is. It’s not just feeding it every day, you have to walk it, you have to take care of it.” Parents should do that—constantly make sure [their children] understand the responsibility. Maybe even taking their kids to an animal shelter, adopting and fostering. Fostering is a really good way to start, because it gives you the experience of doing it and if you’re into it, you can adopt a pet yourselves. Parents of some of the kids [we taught] have told me that they reteach it to them. They go home and they’re like, “Mom, Dad, spaying and neutering is this and we need to do this.” You can see them applying it when they come home, at school, with their friends, even.
How can the Dallas community become involved and help your cause?
I learned through this project and my [Girl Scouts] Gold Award that the smallest things can make a difference—even just spending time at an animal shelter, helping with an adoption day. Before I was like, “Yeah spaying and neutering is a big deal,” but while doing this project I was like, “Wow, spaying and neutering is an even bigger deal than I thought it was.” I was able to see how bad the effects of not doing it are. I think the best thing anyone can do is volunteer at their shelter. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the one I’m working with, just any shelter—anything you do at a shelter can make a difference. Even just playing with an animal socializes them; it makes them more adoptable and more likely to stay in a home. Donating to shelters, too, because they are always in need of supplies.