Smart PALs


People, Animals, Love Makes for Successful Classroom Formula

The group’s name aptly says it all: People Animals Love—that’s the point of PAL, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization and pet-therapy program that’s been in existence for 25 years. Founded by award-winning veterinarian Earl Strimple, PAL promotes the healing and educational benefits of human-animal interaction.

The most well-known aspect of PAL—and kindred initiatives nationwide—is a pet-visiting program that sends animals and their owners into local homes for seniors and area hospitals. These visits aim to cheer up lonely people or offer, if briefly, the pleasures of an encounter with a pet—most often in the form of a friendly dog.

Pet therapy can produce medical benefits, helping with physical rehabilitation or serving as an adjunct antidepressant. In these cases, it’s called animal-assisted therapy (AAT). Although the terms pet therapy and animal-assisted therapy are sometimes used interchangeably, AAT is more rigid and clinical, while the less formal term “pet therapy” is elastic. As happens with PAL programs, the boundaries of pet therapy have expanded to incorporate educational settings.

These education-focused pet programs can be simple and informal: A rabbit in a kindergarten classroom, for instance, that briefly serves as a teaching tool as well as a class pet. Or such programs can be much more involved: Under one PAL initiative, for example, trained and certified dogs help students complete their school’s service requirements. Another effort provides encounters with not only cats, dogs and “pocket pets” such as mice or parakeets, but a whole range of members from the animal kingdom. Thus a large cockroach or a small oyster can introduce a PAL student to science or other studies.

Here’s a closer look at this somewhat surprising, and endearing, educational undertaking.

Christopher Wilson, an art history teacher and PAL volunteer, has taken Jefferson, his black Labrador, into veteran’s hospitals, mental health facilities and nursing homes for three years. A year ago, thinking that pet visits could also benefit adolescents, he set up a PAL club at his school, Holton-Arms, an independent college preparatory institution in Bethesda, Md., for girls in grades three through 12.

The Holton-Arms PAL club began with about 10 students and their dogs, and now has a number of enthusiastic parents and another teacher involved. Hours spent in the program also count toward the school’s community service requirements.

“The [students] visit facilities with me and the dogs, and those 16 or older can visit on their own,” Wilson explained. “We’ve adopted a nursing home in Cleveland Park and go there the third Sunday of every month. We’ll walk the halls, knock on doors, ask patients if they’d like a visit. Some are very lonely people, and it’s wonderful to see their smiles. The girls are like granddaughters to them.”

Visitor dogs have to be evaluated by PAL staff, who pretend to be patients in a room filled with several people and four or five dogs to see how an animal reacts to such a setting. A dog that doesn’t obey commands, jumps around, or doesn’t get along with other dogs is not suitable for the program.

In addition to the dogs, the students also receive PAL training, learning how to care for, protect and control their animals in a specialized environment. They need to watch for spilled medicines that might be lapped up, for example, and make sure animals steer clear of equipment.

“The smallest dog in our club is a Maltese. It’s so tiny the owner can put her on a tabletop or give her to a frail patient to hold. And the biggest is a Burmese mountain dog that can be easily petted by someone sitting in a wheelchair,” Wilson said.

Wilson is equally enthusiastic about PAL’s benefits for his students: “Holton-Arms has a rigorous academic program and it’s good for the students to break away and get out of themselves. It fits with the mission of the school: We try to encourage altruism and serving the community as well as intellectual development.”

The D.C. branch of the PAL pet-visiting program has nearly 300 trained and certified volunteer-pet teams that are presently visiting 18 area institutions, including Inova Fairfax Children’s Hospital, Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health Center, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Episcopal Center for Children.

A clearly committed educator, Wilson wears another PAL hat, serving as a counselor in a PAL summer camp for children living at the Edgewood Terrace apartment complex in Northeast Washington.

This PAL program falls under the umbrella of Beacon House, which was founded in 1991 to support at-risk youth and families in Edgewood Terrace through educational, cultural and recreational programs. Selected as one of the top 70 charities in the D.C. metropolitan area by the Catalogue for Philanthropy, Beacon House has a track record of supporting education programs that work.

The PAL After-School Club at Beacon House currently has about 50 students enrolled in the program, ranging from grades two through five—along with plenty of animals. “We use live animals in the classroom, including rabbits, guinea pigs, a hamster, two giant hissing cockroaches, fish, parrots, parakeets, and, from time to time, other critters,” said Joseph S. Cavarretta, executive director of PAL.

“We teach the children how to take care of the animals, explaining that they’re very fragile, vulnerable, but that they respond to nice care with love,” Cavarretta said. “The children develop relationships with the animals. One little girl, frightened by a violent street scene, spent an hour telling one of the rabbits about it.”

In addition, PAL takes the students on field trips such as visits to Smithsonian museums, the Baltimore Aquarium or a working farm with cows waiting to be milked.

PAL program lessons are based on standards set by the D.C. Public School System and the National Science Foundation, Cavarretta explained, and those lessons are currently being expanded and revised by national experts brought in and funded through Pfizer grants.

Earl Strimple, PAL founder and board chairman, said the curriculum covers plants as well as the entire animal kingdom: “Vertebrates, invertebrates, fish, birds, mammals—it’s very interactive. We’ll have them set up a crayfish habitat and observe crayfish behavior. They’ll create a hypothesis, such as, ‘My seeds will grow faster than your seeds,’ and set out to prove it.”

Other eclectic activities include dissecting owl pellets. “Owls regurgitate the remains of small animals swallowed whole,” Strimple explained. “Bones or pieces of fur can be picked out of these pellets and identified. The kids love it.”

PAL Program Director Kate Bissell described the activities as “very hands on.” Looking to the future, she said PAL was “ working on curricula for middle school children, grades six through eight, and also a program for high school students which will help students explore animal-related careers. Our ultimate goals … are to allow children to care for and empathize with animals, while at the same time providing them with critical scientific skills.”

In fact, when a PAL session starts, the children recite the following pledge: “On my honor I promise to respect and defend the value of all living things; to be a caretaker for the creatures of the world, both great and small; and to live my life, positively, humanely, and compassionately.”

Club members also sign a promise: “I promise in all my actions to speak softly, move slowly, and be gentle, especially with animals, and treat all living things with respect, myself included. I promise to do my share, try my best, and do something positive for someone else every day.”

Bissell recounted the story of a particularly enthusiastic young boy in the after-school program who was learning to take care of the live-in animals at Beacon House. “He came to club wearing a tie with dogs all over it. He declared that this was now his official PAL Club tie, that he loved animals, and that he was going to be a veterinarian when he grew up,” she recalled. “It is exactly these types of ideas we want children to be thinking: They can accomplish whatever they wish. They only need the right kind of assistance.”

As part of that assistance, PAL has also run a summer camp for at-risk youth for the past 13 years. Each camp teaches about 35 to 40 children, lasts seven weeks, and uses paid, certified teachers, as well as two assistants, older youth as volunteers, and visiting experts such as marine biologists. It also includes two field trips each week, adventurous overnight outings, and an abundance of reading assignments. (Last summer’s campers had 19 books on their agenda.) Students might study the quality of the water in the Chesapeake Bay one day and the next day try their hand at milking a cow on a dairy farm.

The entire PAL effort started in the 1970s, Cavarretta said, when Strimple’s friend—a minister at an Episcopalian bereavement group for people whose husbands or wives had died—observed that spouses with animals seemed to recover more quickly. Inspired, veterinarian Strimple began placing animals in homes for seniors. When it became clear that permanent placements didn’t work well because of the expense and burdens of animal care, he changed it to a visit program—and the formula of people, animals and love was born.

For more information on People Animals Love (PAL), please call (202) 966-2171 or visit

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.