SANTA FE – Paw-printed bags formed table centerpieces as tiny fingers stitched felt ears to felt bodies at Rio Grande School on a recent day.
The fourth-grade students were bagging home-baked doggie treats and sewing catnip mice in the hopes of raising $2,000 for the Española Valley Humane Society. It’s a project their teacher Kristin Potter founded 14 years ago.
The students will sell the 12-ounce bags of biscuits for $10 and the catnip mice for $5 until the school’s holiday break, which started last week. Over the years, they’ve raised an average $1,500 to $1,700 annually, Potter said.
“We take a break in January because of testing,” she added. “Then we start it up again in February.”
The prep work takes place on alternate Wednesdays on tables set up in the school hallway, Potter explained. Kids learn the importance of measuring and mixing as they blend flour, oats, chicken broth and vegetable oil. They roll out the dough, then cut out the shapes with canine-related cookie cutters shaped like doghouses and bones.
“There’s dogs howling, but they’re pretty hard because their tails fall off,” 10-year-old Sofia Wolinski said of the cookie cutters.
They bake the results in an oven in a nearby building. The young chefs also clean up the mess and wash the dishes.
The money raised goes directly to feed shelter dogs and cats, Española Valley Humane Society director Bridget Lindquist said.
The students are critical to helping the animals become accustomed to people, she added.
“Most often, they help with dog washing,” Lindquist said. “They also help with cat grooming.
“Animals are like humans. They need exercise, they need attention. And life in the kennel is not fun. Kids with boundless amounts of energy are a gift to us. It brings life to the shelter. They don’t judge. They’re going up to a pit bull with the same love and adoration as they are with a dachshund.”
This year, the class of 17 has produced about 1,900 biscuits and 40 felt cat toys.
“I’ve been a lifelong animal lover, so I wanted to work with animal shelters,” Potter said. “They welcomed the kids.”
The 9- to 10-year olds visit the shelter monthly to clean cages and socialize with the animals as part of their school service project.
“I’ve never had anybody not want to go,” Potter said. “They learn the responsibilities of caring for an animal. They have to make sure everybody has food and water. They clean cages. Sometimes, they wash grungy puppies.”
Children who haven’t been raised with a critter learn how to care for four-footed friends, she added. Sometimes, the animals are equally skittish.
“Sometimes, they’re afraid because they’ve been dumped,” Potter explained. “I’ve had kids staying in the cage for two hours” to calm a dog.
“Those who are allergic to cats go to the dog room,” she added.
Potter found the biscuit recipe in a dog magazine, then tweaked the recipe.
“You have to make sure it’s not canola oil; it’s vegetable oil,” she said explaining that some canines are allergic to canola oil. Over the years, she has tinkered with the ingredients, adding a flavor blast of concentrated chicken in the form of bouillon cubes.
“I’ve tested them on my own dogs,” she said. “They gave their stamp of approval.”
The cat toys germinated three years after the biscuits.
“Part of my reluctance was I don’t sew very well,” Potter said. “I had to find parents and kids to sew for us.” Some families continue the baking and sewing at home to donate more to the shelter, she added.
In the process, the children also learn about business – they design their own labels and order forms and calculate how much of each product they’ll need. They also learn about sales as they speak before the children in the remaining grade levels.
“We did a whole math lesson after a session of baking,” Potter said.
A few of the students boasted of prior baking experience. “I help my mom in the kitchen and stuff – baking cakes,” 9-year-old Harrison Browning said. “Sometimes, in the fourth-grade class, we use a little less than a cup of flour and it’s too moist,” he added.
Nine-year-old Ridley Tidmore said he didn’t mind cleaning the dirty cat cages at the shelter.
“It’s gross, but it’s fun because you get to socialize with them a little bit,” he said. “You can take them out and cuddle them.”
The visits sometimes serve an additional adoption purpose. This year, three cats and a Saint Bernard found homes with Rio Grande families.
Wolinski adopted her gray and white kitty Tempest during a shelter visit.
“She was so cute and she loved to play with balls and in the snow,” she said as her nimble fingers sewed a pair of pink cat ears onto a white felt body stuffed with herbs.
The dog treats can do double duty as human treats, the students said.
“They taste kind of like a cookie,” Tidmore explained.
The response to that information may vary, Hugh Browning acknowledged, as he nibbled a biscuit.
“Either they believe that they’re edible, or they think you’re a total creep.”