The cat's out of the classroom

Jessica Nittolo paced back and forth with excitement during a visit to the Austin Pets Alive! shelter one day last fall. Nittolo, a freshman business major, was at the shelter to meet a temperamental tabby named Venus.

But Venus didn't share her enthusiasm.

A brown blur darted into a far corner when Nittolo stepped into the enclosure. Tentatively, Nittolo crept in closer. Her reassuring coos were met by silence from under the chair where the cat had taken refuge. Nittolo bent down and allowed a more gregarious feline to nuzzle her hand.

"Venus's shyness might stem from abuse in her past," Nittolo said. "A lot of these animals have dark histories. I can't blame her for not wanting to open up to a stranger when she might have suffered for it before."

Nittolo's visit was part of a collaboration between local animal welfare nonprofit Austin Pets Alive! (APA!) and a School of Undergraduate Studies course, "Leadership, Ethics, and Animals," taught by Professor Jerome Bump. While studying animal ethics and first-person writing, the students also wrote creative biographies for adoptable cats and dogs. The biographies -- posted on the APA! Web site, Petfinder.com and Craigslist.org -- helped find homes for the animals. In return, students left the course with a valuable new appreciation for the power of writing.

"I don't think you'll find a more compelling reason to write than to save the life of an animal," Bump said. "This partnership creates a sense of purpose not possible in the classroom. It gets students excited about writing."

Service learning differs from volunteering in that it directly links community service to class content. The animal bios' emphasis on descriptive, first-person writing aligned closely with the academic goals of the course, helping students master the literary concept of the "sympathetic imagination,"or the writer's ability to identify with the object he or she describes. Students put theory into practice when they write from the perspective of an animal.

At a second meeting a month later, Nittolo discovered not only that Venus had come out of her shell, but also that she was scampering around the cattery like she owned the place.

"I'm a diva and I know it," Nittolo wrote from the cat's perspective. "Give me treats and I'll love you forever. Hey, I'm gorgeous, so I deserve it Since I've arrived at the APA! cattery, I've had a huge transformation."

Jill Peterson, volunteer director of dog marketing at APA!, said that creative bios are instrumental in helping animals get adopted because they give potential adopters critical information they need when looking for a new companion.

APA! has garnered accolades in the Austin community since it was founded in June 2008. Every cat and dog in APA!'s care is rescued from the euthanasia list at Town Lake Animal Center (TLAC). To date, APA! has saved the lives of 6,670 animals, helping TLAC decrease its euthanasia rate from 45 percent to 17 percent. Austin is inching closer toward the ambitious goal of becoming a "no-kill" city, in which at least 90 percent of animals entering shelters will be adopted.

The service learning partnership worked out so well last semester that Bump will continue the same project in his upper-division animal humanities course this spring.

Venus is still waiting for a home, but most of the 31 other cats and dogs for which students wrote bios have already been adopted.

For more information about service learning courses at The University of Texas at Austin, contact the Office of Academic Service Learning.