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Colts might rule at Beaumont Middle School, but big cats are also really cool.
At its last meeting, the PAWS Club welcomed several wild animals from the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, which offers a Traveling Cat Ambassador Program. The handlers also brought along a domestic house cat and a young Labrador retriever in the small menagerie. The nearly 70 youngsters in the “Pets And Wildlife for Students” club soaked up the close-up experience with the cats as well as earlier encounters with birds of prey and a dog from a local shelter.
“My favorite part is learning how to protect them and take care of them,” said seventh-grader Kailey Boyles, who noted how supporters can lend a hand at animal shelters and donate to conservation groups.
Social worker Kimberly Burris and guidance counselor Connie Morse launched the PAWS Club this fall. “Kim and I really have a love for animals and wanted to share that with the kids,” Morse said.
Last summer, for instance, Burris studied seabirds in Maine through the Audubon Society, which inspired her to engage students in wildlife conservation. Both women have rallied for animal welfare causes and volunteered with the Lexington Humane Society. Their goal with the PAWS Club is to increase appreciation and respect for animals, and to promote compassion toward all living things. It’s also an educational opportunity.
In its initial programs this fall, the after-school club hosted Louisville-based Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky and led a donations drive for the humane society. Students plan to take a field trip in January to Locust Trace AgriScience Farm, where they will see several types of animals and check out the clinic.
“I want to be a vet when I grow up,” said sixth-grader Lauren Carter, co-president of PAWS. “Even if you don’t have pets, it’s still a good learning experience.”
In February’s service project, club members will decorate fleece blankets for animals being adopted out through PetSmart and rescue organizations. Later in the spring, representatives from Central Kentucky Wildlife Rehabilitation out of Scott County will visit Beaumont.
“There are a lot of opportunities around here,” Morse said, mentioning the Primate Rescue Center and Wolf Run Wildlife Refuge, both in neighboring Jessamine County.
Wherever they come from, seeing animals up close is the highlight for seventh-grader Jacob Rutledge. He and fellow club members got an eyeful when the Cincinnati Zoo crew paraded out a serval, an ocelot and a cheetah.
As the leash-bound serval paced, the youngsters kept quiet and held still so as not to distract it. They heard how in the wild, this cat spends six hours a day hunting, mostly in tall grasses. Its large ears act like satellite dishes, easily detecting scurrying rodents at a distance.
“They’re able to jump five times the length of their body and grab birds right out of the sky,” said Linda Castaneda, lead trainer and Cat Ambassador coordinator.
In contrast, the ocelot has a darker coat and larger eyes for stalking prey at night. This rain forest species is known for its agility and tree-climbing; its bow-shaped legs hug the trunk as its razor-sharp claws cling like Velcro.
The cheetah, on the other hand, has extended nails like a dog; though not sharp, its claws act like cleats as the cat chews up ground in pursuit of dinner. With binocular vision, the cheetah can see up to 3 miles. Its spotted coloring helps in sneaking up on gazelles, warthogs and the occasional small deer. Then the cat accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 3.4 seconds, with a 27-foot stride at full clip.
“They are the ultimate running machine,” Castaneda said. “They’re built for speed to catch their food.”
She also talked a bit about her work at the zoo, including the education and experience required, and the demands of the 24-7 job. And she encouraged the students to consider how they can help protect animals, especially those threatened by habitat loss.
“Conservation isn’t inherent in our nature; it’s something we have to learn. We like to impart the simple things you can do,” Castaneda said, citing the three R’s of recycle, reduce and reuse. “Many of the things we do in our everyday life affect an animal’s survival. Even though we don’t live in Africa or South America, we do impact environments around the world.”