Learning to read, with the help of some feline friends

A captive audience might be the key to discovering the joys of reading—as long as the audience has whiskers. This summer, Cat Welfare Association, the Clintonville cat shelter, launched a new program in which children read aloud to homeless cats. The young readers practice their skills before nonjudgmental listeners while the kitties gain valuable socialization time with humans, an experience that can improve their chances of adoption.

“When kids are reading with those cats, they bond with them, and it's a hands-on way to learn about empathy,” says Clintonville children's author Wolfgang Parker, who teamed with Cat Welfare to start the program, called Crime Cats Mystery Club, named after Parker's Crime Cats series of early-reader chapter books.

Club members—kids in grades one through eight—sign up to read for 15 to 30 minutes at a time for six weeks. Parker heard about similar programs in other cities and approached Cat Welfare with the idea. He donated about 150 chapter books for the effort, including some of his own, which focus on 8-year-old Jonas Shurmann and cat detectives CatBob and Neil Higgins.

Gail Harbert, Cat Welfare's program manager, says the shelter has anywhere from 200 to 250 cats in its care at 741 Wetmore Road. All the reading is done in the shelter's “shy cat” area, and a parent must stay on site, Harbert says. Once a month, Parker hosts a pizza party for club members.

After a successful pilot program last year, the club officially began in June. The original 20-child maximum was immediately doubled to 40 because so many kids wanted to participate, Parker says. That left a waiting list of 100 kids, who Parker hopes can become club members during future reading sessions. “The combination of books and cats—this is something that will really help children,” Harbert says. “And the cats love it.”