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Humane education applies to pets and people

January 11, 1998

Humane education applies to pets and people

By LAURA ERNDE

Staff Writer

MAUGANSVILLE - There are no bad pet owners, just uninformed ones, says Jon Sweeney.

Sweeney learned that rule of thumb even before he became humane education coordinator at the Washington County SPCA in July.

Now he puts it to use every day teaching young people about animal safety.

"I believe in McDonald's philosophy - get 'em while they're young," he said.

Sweeney, 29, speaks to groups of children in the classroom, at day-care centers and at youth clubs.

He hopes that his work will prevent tragedies like the one suffered by Bell, a beagle he takes with him sometimes.

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Bell was found in a pen with her siblings, who had all died from neglect, he said. She was adopted by a shelter worker.

Bell is getting older, though, and a little bored with all the attention she gets from the children.

So Sweeney is starting to take Frankie with him, a puppy abandoned on Interstate 81 and taken in by another shelter worker.

The first thing Sweeney asks students is, "What does SPCA stand for?"

Few can answer Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He explains to them that it's called a society because everyone is responsible for animal safety.

He tells them how to care for pets and also respect the wildlife around them.

Like child abuse, animal abuse is a behavior often passed on to the next generation.

"It doesn't make them bad people. It just makes them poorly informed," he said.

Sweeney left his home in Henderson, Ky., for the big city life of Nashville, Tenn., but found himself trekking to the country every weekend. He volunteered to do wildlife rehabilitation.

He got his first job at a shelter when he moved to Prince George's County. He worked the night shift taking calls and dispatching humane officers.

One of the most common complaints he heard was from people who saw wildlife in their backyards.

"I was very surprised at the intolerance for urban wildlife," he said.

He decided it was time to create his first education program, explaining that wildlife is not dangerous if respected and left alone.

Sweeney missed the mountains and moved to Rohrersville three years ago.

He worked as a humane education officer at Washington County SPCA until the full-time job of humane education coordinator was created in July.

Sometimes, the children he talks to write to him. One girl, who had been suffering from antisocial behavior, wrote how she could see the pain the animals had suffered.

"With more and more violence in the world, we're finally seeing a link between violence to animals and violence to people. I feel that humane education is not only teaching respect for animals, but empathy and kindness toward everyone," he said.

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