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Kids Read to Cats

Cats have incredible hearing. Not only can they hear sounds that are too soft for humans to notice, they can also hear things that are too high or low-pitched to register with a human ear. Cats can also tell the origins of sounds with uncanny accuracy. That's why opening the cupboard door next to where the cat food is stored produces no reaction, while opening the food cupboard itself instantly has the cat twining around your legs and purring. With cats that have no homes, the feline listening ability makes them superb at hunting down mice and listening to children read.

Listening to children read? Well, yes. This is a growing trend that is happening in animal shelters across North America. As far as anyone can tell, the idea was born at an animal shelter in Berks County, Pennsylvania. The young son of one of the staff at the shelter needed to practice his reading. So staff took him to the cat room and suggested that the boy do his reading aloud in there. The original idea was that the boy could read without anyone bothering him, but it soon became apparent that there were unexpected benefits for both reader and cats.

When you come to think about it, the life of a shelter cat is a rather lonely one. These cats are often accustomed to having humans around, and then for one reason or another, they end up spending most of their day in a cage. Sure, shelter staff feed them and take care of them, but in a busy shelter there is little time for the humans to relax and just hang out with the cats. So the cats get isolated and less used to human contact, and this makes them shy and less likely to be adopted.

When a child comes in to the cat room and starts reading to the cat, this is very soothing for the cat, because it has a human around who is doing things not directly related to the cat (which a timid cat can find threatening). At the same time the cats generally find that the rhythmic sound of the human voice is both comforting and relaxing. So being read to is good for the cats. It gives them a sense of still sharing part of their lives with humans, and it is not that unusual for reading sessions to break into impromptu playtimes which the cats also have missed and enjoy.

The reading sessions are also good for the kids. It goes without saying that in the modern world reading is an essential life skill, and reading aloud develops a number of abilities. The problem is that few people like reading aloud to themselves, because not only does it feel a bit silly (you already know what the words are, so why say them?) but also when there is no-one listening, there is no reason to go on.

On the other hand, humans can't help being judgy. If the child makes a mistake, or mispronounces a word, or loses track of his place, he knows that - even if his human audience don't say anything - they have heard the mistake. Children between six and eleven (the best ages for cat readers, it has been discovered) can be very sensitive about things like this. Ideally, what they need is someone who will listen to them read aloud, paying obvious attention, but not minding at all when the child makes a mistake. Cats are perfect for this.

As parents have discovered that reading to cats can help their children to maintain focus, gain confidence and improve their grades, the idea has caught on. After starting in the eastern USA the idea has spread west and north to Canada, where there are now cat reading centers in Saskatchewan and Toronto (the latter program being called 'Kitty litter-a-ture').

Of course, no program is perfect, and there seems to be no solution to the fact that cats believe themselves to be transparent. As they get used to their human readers they tend to lie on top of the book being read. Also of course, it sometimes happens that a particular kid and cat form so much of a bond that the cat ends up getting adopted into the child's home. Like so much else in the Cat Readers idea, this is a win-win situation for everybody.

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