I often hear shelter directors say the way we fix this problem of so many unwanted dogs and the resultant neglect and cruelty is with the next generation. Well, on our last shelter tour, we had the opportunity to see it in action.
At Felix Varela High School in Miami Florida, a remarkable woman named Yleana runs the Veterinary Science magnet academy.
Not only does she teach kids how to care for horses, goats, and chickens (and show them in the FFA), but she gives them the responsibility to care for dogs who are rescued via the Redland Rockpit Abandoned Dog Project.
The dogs (and horses and goats and chickens and cats) live at the high school. Yleana is there seven days a week overseeing the work of students who take on responsibility for the animals. Feeding, cleaning kennels, and outside runs, and training the dogs using Fear-free training methods, gaining a valuable, marketable skill.
Yleana began the program in 2009. Until that point, she’d been an AP Environmental Science teacher, but when the Agricultural Science teacher had to leave, the school asked her to step in for one more year (after that they planned to shutter the program). Yleana realized that she could combine her two great loves – rescuing animals and teaching young people. She told the school, she wouldn’t teach botany, but if that was okay, she’d take over the program. And the Veterinary Science magnet program was born.
The dogs and puppies in the program are all rescues. They came from different rescues until 2015 when they began partnering with the Redland Rockpit Abandoned Dog Project (more about that to come!). The students rehabilitate the animals, many of which arrive emaciated, terrified, and with no prior training. They work with the animals until they can be adopted out (or sometimes moved out through another rescue).
To date, the program’s graduates include four licensed veterinarians, 12 students who are currently in vet school, 4 ag teachers (like Yleana – although this is the only high school in the country that I know of that has a model like this one), a cattle rancher, several students who work for the dairy council, and others who own animal-based businesses (including goat yoga!).
Kearstyn, a senior in the academy gave us a tour of the kennels, the goat area, and introduced us to the ponies. She hopes to attend the University of Florida next year in pre-vet studies. She is already a proficient trainer and we watched as she put several puppies through their paces.
After that, she brought out Hope, a beautiful shepherd puppy whose back legs are missing sockets to connect her bones. She has to drag her hind end most of the time, but can actually prop her hind end up and bounce/run. Hope is a beautiful, happy, well-trained dog. Technically, she belongs to the rescue, but they hope to find her an adopter someday. She quickly stole our hearts. Clearly, Hope has no idea there is anything wrong with her and she is receiving excellent care and lots of love. (to see her in action check out our Instagram page).
The program is brilliant, but I wondered how they get beyond liability issues to start a program like this at a high school. I’d love to see it duplicated all over our country. Felix Varela HS requires that all the students in the program purchase insurance through the school’s insurance program (about $60) and sign a very thorough waiver. It’s been twelve years and no problems.
Since visiting the high school and spending a day with the students, I’ve dreamed of replicating it all over. I know it’s likely a hard sell in our liability-
paranoid conscious world. But in Redland they have created an incredible program that is quite definitely benefitting the community, the animals, and the kids who are a part of the program.
We need to do more to create intentional humane education opportunities for all children. And not just because it will help the animals—because it will help humanity. There is overwhelming evidence that where you find animal neglect, cruelty, and/or abuse, you also find human neglect, cruelty, and/or abuse. Police departments all over the world are aware of this fact.
If we teach children to respect and value the lives of animals, it will have a deep and profound effect on how they treat all living beings.
Until each one has a home,
The mission of Who Will Let the Dogs Out (we call it Waldo for short) is to raise awareness and resources for homeless dogs and the heroes who fight for them.
We are preparing for our next shelter tour in June. If you’d like to support the tour and the work we do, click here. We have stickers, Waldo notecards, and Waldo t-shirts available as thank yous for your donations!
You can learn more about what is happening in our southern shelters and rescues in the book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, 2020). It’s the story of a challenging foster dog who inspired me to travel south to find out where all the dogs were coming from. It tells the story of how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. Find it anywhere books are sold. A portion of the proceeds of every book sold go to help unwanted animals in the south.
Amber’s Halfway Home is our short documentary film produced in partnership with Farnival Films. It follows the work of a remarkable woman and one day of rescue in western Tennessee. Selected for sixteen film festivals (to date), it’s won eight awards (including Best Short Doc, Best Soundtrack, Best of Fest, and Audience Choice), and was nominated for an Emmy! It is a beautiful, heartbreaking, inspiring story we hope will compel viewers to work for change. Please watch it and share it far and wide.