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June 17, 2009

Humane Education in Chicago

Students get a new attitude about dogfighting

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Demetrius Ware won the Showcase contest to raise awareness about dogfighting. Sandra Delisle

"If I can make money off of fighting my dog, I'll do it," boasted 12-year-old Aliyah, a Chicago seventh-grader—startling words to hear from the mouth of one so young.

This was before she attended The Humane Society of the United States' eight-week humane education course, held at Chicago's Delano School and Spencer Technology Academy.

This week, former Illinois public school teacher Sandy DeLisle and End Dogfighting in Chicago advocates saw the fruits of their labor as students submitted their final projects outlining the ills of dogfighting.

Showcasing Creativity

"Students created projects ranging from rap songs to public service announcements showing why dogfighting is wrong," said Sandy, who coordinates the End Dogfighting in Chicago program. "Based on the quality of these projects, I have high hopes that the students will pass on their newfound knowledge and empathy to others in their community."

The three seventh-grade classes that participated showcased their projects for the whole school. The top entrants in each of the five categories—persuasive essay, video PSA, print PSA, rap song/poem and freestyle—received $50 gift cards.

Two standouts were Arnold Bush, whose artwork urged people to "Be humane...break the chain," and Demetrius Ware, whose rap about the ills of dogfighting flowed smoothly off his tongue.

Anti-Dogfighting Advocates from The 'Hood

Teaching the course alongside Sandy DeLisle were humane educators Anthony and Antonio Pickett. The brothers grew up in a neighborhood similar to the one where they now serve as anti-dogfighting advocates, teaching kids to have compassion for all animals.

Anthony puts the message of compassion into plain and simple words: "Fighting dogs is wrong, plain and simple. My dog is like a part of my family. How would you like it if your parents threw you into a ring to get beat up so they could make money?"

"We do this because we know what it's like to grow up in the inner city," said Antonio. "Kids here don't know that pit bulls aren't meant for fighting; they see dogfighting and think it's okay. We teach them a different way of looking at these dogs—as friends, not fighters."

Sandy looks forward to expanding her program to four Chicago public schools this fall with the help of a new cadre of humane educators: Catherine Pilgrim, Julie Sielaff and Gwen Stern. She explained, "We show students why dogfighting is bad for animals, for the community and even for the dogfighters themselves."

She continued, "As a bonus, we cover several Illinois state standards for education. It's a win/win situation for the animals and the schools."

Seeing for Themselves

Students participating in End Dogfighting in Chicago's humane education course took a field trip in May to Chicago's Anti-Cruelty Society (ACS), one of the nation's oldest animal shelters. There, students met throngs of animals in desperate need of homes, a number of them pit bulls. Many of them were victims of the mindset that casts them more as disposable dogs than as family pets.  

The ACS' Elliott Serrano was impressed by the knowledge that the students brought with them. "I see hundreds of kids every year, and the benefits the Spencer students received from their humane education class is obvious," he said.

"These kids were already familiar with many of the key concepts in humane education, including dog safety.  It's great to see how many kids can be reached when animal protection organizations partner up."

For many Spencer students, the best part of the class was a visit from Jeff Jenkins, lead dog trainer for the End Dogfighting in Chicago program, and his talented pit bull mix Lola. The duo performed part of the act they have become famous for at the Chicago Bulls' half-time shows.

After the performance Jeff fielded many questions from the students about pit bulls and gave them the chance for up-close and personal time with a friendly canine.

Initially some kids were hesitant to pet Lola, but she charmed them by giving high-fives.

Losing The Negative Stereotypes

By the end of the humane education classes at Spencer, students who once felt only fear and negativity toward pit bulls expressed a newfound understanding.

"Pit bulls aren't vicious animals; they can actually be gentle."
— Crystal, 15 years old

"I never realized how many dogs die while fighting."
— Sabrina, 13 years old

"I didn't think teasing dogs was a bad thing, but now I know it's not a good idea."
— Kierra, 14 years old

"Dogs have a lot of different emotions, just like people. And they love to learn."
— Lashai, 12 years old

As for Aliyah, the seventh-grader who boasted of dogfighting?

When asked what she learned from the class, she replied, "When I first started learning about dogfighting, I said I would do it for the money. Then, I realized that a dog's life is just as important as a human's. I am ashamed of myself for thinking of dogs in a careless way."

"The people from The Humane Society of the United States taught me that dogs won't bother you if you don't bother them."

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