Speak softly. Move slowly. Be gentle.
These are the basic rules at PAL Club, an after-school program in Northeast Washington in which children learn how to interact with animals.
Antoine Hawkins, 7, recently took his turn holding Sherrell, a guinea pig. He used to have an unpredictable cat, an experience that made him think all animals "are crazy and mean."
But the pets at PAL Club are different, he said.
"I like the animals here. I like the guinea pigs, the dogs and the rabbits. I like rabbits because they get to hop. I like the guinea pig because it tickles me," Antoine said.
PAL Club, held at Beacon House in the Edgewood Terrace public housing complex in Ward 5, is run by People Animals Love, a nonprofit community outreach group that has been bringing people and animals together in the Washington region since 1982.
The club at Edgewood Terrace opened seven years ago, after it was given space in the complex by Beacon House, a neighborhood organization that supports at-risk children and families. The club offers contact with animals to disadvantaged children with the goal of helping them learn nurturing behaviors and increase their interest and knowledge in science.
Studies have established the health and social benefits of interacting with animals. Pets can relieve stress in humans young and old. For children, taking care of an animal helps develop feelings of caring and empathy that contribute to emotional growth.
Earl O. Strimple, a retired veterinarian who founded PAL, said he saw a need to brighten the lives of isolated people -- the sick, the elderly, the incarcerated -- through "pet therapy."
"Animals bring out the best in us," Strimple said. "Animals don't care who you are. You treat them well, and they'll treat you well. Treat them badly, and they'll have nothing to do with you."
Strimple, 65, and a small group of PAL volunteers started working first with inmates at what was then the District's Lorton Correction Complex in Fairfax County, helping them tend to feral cats that roamed the grounds. That led to a program to train inmates as animal caretakers.
Volunteers with dogs and other pets also began making regular visits to the Washington Home, a nursing facility and hospice.
PAL now has a yearly budget of about $300,000 and has expanded its pet visitation program to about 20 sites. Its roughly 200 volunteers put in about 16,000 hours last year, bringing their pets -- mostly dogs, but also cats and rabbits -- to visit the sick or lonely at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Armed Forces Retirement Home, Sibley Memorial Hospital, Inova Fairfax Hospital and several retirement and assisted living facilities in the city, Virginia and Maryland.
The organization relies on grants and contributions to pay for three employees, program materials, office supplies, insurance and other costs.
Strimple's "pet therapy" was expanded to children through the PAL Club. The children are drawn from three public elementary schools in the community, including a charter school, and one parochial school.
"Animals aren't generally part of inner-city culture," Strimple said, and the Edgewood Terrace apartments don't allow pets. "I knew the importance of animals and the human-animal bond, and I wanted more children to experience that."
Nearly 40 children in grades 2 through 5 participate, at no charge to their families. The second- and third-graders attend on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the fourth- and fifth-graders are there on Mondays and Wednesdays. Once a month, on a Saturday, the two groups unite for field trips to places such as the National Zoo, the Baltimore Aquarium, nature centers and regional parks.
The club promotes bonding between humans and animals by having the youngsters care for class pets and participate in activities designed to improve their school grades and scores on the science portion of the Stanford 9 exam. Its "living classroom" houses two rabbits, two guinea pigs, a parakeet and a hamster. Dogs are often brought in for afternoon visits.
PAL Executive Director Sherry Hall said PAL provides other programs for youths, including summer camp and sessions in which students can meet professionals who work in animal-related fields and receive advice about career opportunities.
Hall recently introduced the PAL Club to her pet, Hope, an 8-year-old cockapoo. A cross between a cocker spaniel and a poodle, the dog was a hit with the kids, who took turns walking her around the room on a leash.
"The children get really excited around the animal the second they see it," said Kathryn E. Bissell, a veterinarian who is a PAL Club instructor. "They want to hold them and pet them, but they don't have any trouble being gentle with the animals. They look forward to taking care of them."
The club had reptiles and amphibians in the past and hopes to get hermit crabs and frogs again, and to replace a lizard that died.
When Sherrell, the guinea pig, and Luther, a rabbit, were brought into the classroom recently, nearly a dozen second- and third-graders excitedly crowded around, eager to hold them.
Nia Savoy, 8, spelled Sherrell's name and expertly explained how to care for her. "You are supposed to make sure the cage is clean and that the water [bottle] is way up high," said Nia, who is in third grade. "You feed her lettuce and carrots and little things that guinea pigs eat."
The animals are kept in large cages in a room next to the classroom. The room is locked when not in use, and someone tends to the animals on weekends when the instructors and students aren't there, Bissell said.
Often, children want to take the animals home, but that is not permitted.
"This is as good a substitute as we can give them," Bissell said. "It's nice for them to learn empathy for living creatures through the program, and hopefully, that will translate into empathy for each other."
The children learn to work together while they learn to feed the animals and clean cages, said PAL instructor Ashley Anthony.
"Most of these kids don't have pets, so they love interacting with the animals," said Anthony, 22. "The animals make it easier for them to get along."
A typical club session allots time to be with the animals and time for animal-related class work. The children are currently studying fish, and lesson plans have included dissecting fish and making clay models to illustrate the "water cycle."
Last month, Tweety, a cockatiel, died suddenly, and there was an unplanned lesson about the cycle of life.
"We sat them down and told them that Tweety had passed away," Anthony said. "They wanted to know how, and we told them the bird was sick."
Class that day was devoted to making goodbye cards for Tweety, and two girls later held a funeral.
The Hartz Mountain Corp., which makes pet products, has contributed $30,000 and various services this year to support PAL Club and is considering replicating it in other after-school programs. The funds help pay for two instructors and one assistant, field trip costs, pet food and other supplies.
Deja White, 8, one of the few children in the group who has a pet at home, praised PAL Club.
"You can care and love the animals, and that's the same way I do for my dog," she said. She proclaimed the guinea pig her favorite animal "because he's soft and cuddly."
Alexus Williams, 7, said she "really liked the hamster." Asked to pick a favorite, she thought a bit, then shrugged. "All of them."