ASPCA Opens Young Minds at Bronx School’s “Be the Change” Week

February 21, 2017

Bronx Academy of Letters students

Staff and representatives from the ASPCA with students and teachers at the Bronx Academy of Letters.

The first question was simple: “How many of you have a pet?”

Several of the classroom’s 23 students raised their hands.

“How many of you like animals?”

All 23 raised their hands.

These questions opened a talk by Michelle Villagomez, ASPCA Senior Director of NYC Legislation, to middle school students at the Bronx Academy of Letters on February 15 during the school’s “Be the Change” week. 

The ASCPA’s Michelle Villagomez encourages students to become animal advocates.

The ASPCA’s Michelle Villagomez encourages students to become animal advocates.

Michelle explained the ASPCA’s role in shaping animal welfare legislation, and shared how the students themselves can play a role.  She told them about the ASPCA's work to pass Intro. 485, a bill that requires New York City to build and maintain full-service animals shelters in all five boroughs.

“This spring, the City Council will hold hearings on the executive budget, and you can help ensure that this funding remains in the budget,” she explained.  “Your council representatives want to know what you think, no matter how young you are. You live here and you love animals, and if you had a full-service shelter in the Bronx, you could visit or adopt one of those animals.”

Max Cantarero, a representative from the office of Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Speaker of the New York City Council and Council Member for the 8th District, echoed Michelle’s comments, encouraging the students. “We want to hear from you,” he confirmed.

Michelle showed the students how to write Council members to ask them to support the existing bill for a full-service animal shelter in their borough. Sixth-grader Miriam Gutierrez’s letter to Ms. Mark-Viverito began: “Thank you for helping animals. Please help us get a shelter.” 

Sixth-grader Miriam Gutierrez

Sixth-grader Miriam Gutierrez with the letter she drafted to the City Council.

The letter-writing project was one of several activities undertaken by the class during their exploration of animal welfare, one of 14 causes chosen by students throughout the public, college-preparatory school for “Be the Change” week.

“Our students want to be a ‘voice for the voiceless,’” said sixth grade Mathematics teacher Raven Hill, adding that the class been reading articles and watching documentaries about animal abuse and had discussed ways to advocate for them. “The entire week meant a great deal.”

The highlight of the morning may have been when Moira Mahaney, the ASPCA’s Animal Assisted Therapy Coordinator, introduced two therapy dogs in training who had been rescued from cruelty by the NYPD and rehabilitated by the ASPCA: Four-year-old Panino, a partially blind pit bull mix, with his adopter Jake St. John; and three-year-old Dani, a pit bull with cropped ears, with her adopter Stacey Richman.

Dani the therapy dog

Dani, a therapy dog-in-training at the ASPCA who was rescued by the NYPD, circles the classroom for a meet-and-greet with students.

As the students surrounded and petted the dogs, questions arose naturally.

“What’s his diet?” 

“How long does it take to train a dog?”

“What happened to his eye?”

“Who cut her ears?”

“There were many teachable moments,” said Moira. “It was great to see the impact these special dogs had on the kids. The best part was watching the more hesitant students gain confidence to pet Dani and Panino, who are great examples of resilience and forgiveness.”


Panino, a therapy-dog-in-training at the ASPCA, demonstrates how he can sit.

The dogs inspired the students to talk about their own pets as well. Eleven-year-old Cameron Johnson said his Shih Tzu-mix, Dior, was “fun to be around.”  Miriam said animals “help people” and proudly pointed to a drawing of her pet cockatiel.

As Moira distributed paper towel tubes and showed the students how to make simple toys for shelter cats and kittens, she said, “Little things like this can go a long way in making an animal’s life better.”

Michelle introduced the ASPCA’s “Shop with Your Heart” campaign, suggesting students ask their local grocers to carry humanely-raised food products. “Animals feel pain, emotion, and can’t speak for themselves,” said Vanessa Dominguez, a bilingual counselor at the school.  “It’s good for us to make the connection to what we eat.”

“The week was an eye-opening experience,” said Neonne Ameer, an eighth grade Social Studies teacher.  “We need to be advocates for the voiceless, or else we're idly standing by.”

Miriam points to a drawing of her pet cockatiel

Miriam points to a drawing of her pet cockatiel that decorated an ASPCA banner made by the class.

As the morning came to a close, it was clear that a new generation of animal welfare advocates might be well on its way, and not a moment too soon.