Shelter animals were introduced to the adventures of Dora the Explorer and the classics of Dr. Seuss on Monday morning.
As part of the Reading Buddies program, a group of 20 students gathered at Bishop Animal Shelter, in Bradenton, to strengthen their reading skills and their bonds with animals.
Dozens of dogs and cats offered a patient ear, allowing the girls to practice without the usual anxiety that might come with mispronouncing a word or reading slowly.
They came from schools and programs run by Just for Girls, which recently partnered with Animal Network and Donte’s Den Foundation to launch the summer reading program.
“It gives our animals something new and enriching in their lives, and it gives the kids an opportunity to learn how to interact with animals,” said Emily Bach, a spokeswoman for the shelter.
The girls squealed — some in excitement and others in fear — as Bach introduced them to Feebs and Brodie Lee, a pair of white rats. A few minutes passed and smiles soon replaced the grimacing faces.
“They’re so soft,” a girl said, holding one of the rats.
Bach soon emerged with Harper, a lionhead rabbit, and then Bentley, a mixed-breed puppy. Though each animal seemed to delight the girls, one dog clearly stole the show.
His name is Banjo, and he spends each day relaxing at the shelter and bringing joy to its visitors and staff. He moved between potential homes and the shelter for years, but costly medical issues forced him back to the familiar refuge. The staff, which discovered Banjo’s terminal cancer last year, is now bracing for the inevitable.
Though his day are likely numbered, he is still enjoying new experiences. The shelter created a bucket list, and Banjo has since tasted peanut butter, visited a dog beach, embarked on a picnic and enjoyed a spa day.
He was one of approximately 130 animals who called the shelter home on Monday. The staff cares for a host of small animals, including cats, dogs, guinea pigs and finches, Bach said.
The animals are now part-time reading buddies, some more attentive than others. Ann Colonna, development and events coordinator at Just for Girls, said the new program was made possible by a donation from Conrad and Ruth Ann Szymanski, received through the Manatee Community Foundation.
“They wanted to help us promote reading for our girls, as well as adoption of local animals,” she said.