Lutherville teaching duo stresses compassion for man and beast

Lutherville resident Ann Gearhart can only guess that SpiritSong, her beloved 48-pound pooch, is about 10 years old now.

Nine years ago, when she adopted the lanky mixed-breed hound with the soulful brown eyes from the Baltimore County animal shelter, she knew little about her.

The homeless creatures with no names who arrive at an shelter seldom come with a story, said Gearhart, who has been director of humane education for the Hampden-based Snyder Foundation for Animals for 19 years.

"They reveal only that they are alone, disoriented and often fearful," she said.

The Snyder Foundation, established in 1898 by Benjamin Snyder, promotes the humane treatment of animals through education and philanthropic support.

During the past 19 years, the foundation has awarded more than $2.65 million to 98 Maryland humane organizations in 21 counties, and has invested more than $3.16 million in education of humane, character and environmental topics for students.

The foundation also has invested more than $1.5 million in low-cost spay-neuter programs for pets of lower-income families.

Partners in education

Gearhart is involved in the presentation of some 40 educational programs offered by Snyder. The classes focus on everything from animal safety, bite prevention and how to prevent animal cruelty, to learning about service dogs, bats, sharks, reptiles and the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

She usually takes SpiritSong along on her speaking engagements.

Spirit is a certified "education assistance" dog. When she is on duty with Gearhart during lectures and classes, she wears a blue vest with white lettering indicating she is a graduate of Dogs, Ears and Paws, the Sykesville-based state facility that trains assistance dogs for various purposes.

Gearhart and Spirit have presented programs at senior centers and at Timonium, Sparks, Hampton and Riderwood elementary schools, as well as Sacred Heart and St. Jospeh's schools, and the Woodbrook Early Learning Center.

"She consistently provide curriculum based instruction that is fresh, interesting, appropriate and current," said Loch Raven Academy teacher Julie Wadsworth.

When Spirit is not at work, so to speak, "she's a very proud Luthervillian, who prances and dances on the streets on downtown Lutherville," Gearhart. She's considered a celebrity in some places, including the Dunes Hotel in Ocean City.

But when Spirit is working, she remains absolutely still, which is reassuring to some people, especially children, who can be afraid of dogs. Gearhart recalls one time when Spirit saw a stuffed monkey similar to one of her toys at home and just fixated on it. But she didn't move, Gearhart said.

"We are both very serious about our work," she said.

Spirit helps Gearhart explain how assistance dogs can be depended upon to be well behaved; how a dog's body language conveys nonverbal messages; what "endangered species" are and how dogs and cats are not among them; and how important it is to clean up dog poop to avoid polluting the bay — Spirit refrains from presenting a case in point, Gearhart said.

Otherwise, "she prevents things from becoming abstract," said Gearhart.

In the classroom, Spirit's soulful, doleful presence makes the topic of animal abuse all too real.

An expert on the link between animal abuse and crimes against people, Gearhart knows that a child or adult who inflicts pain and suffering on an animal can easily move on to domestic abuse and cruelty to human beings. The community that tolerates animal abuse is equally unhealthy, she said.

The foundation's ongoing "Take Animal Abuse Seriously Campaign" includes bookmarks with a photograph of Spirit on one side and a pledge to report animal abuse on the other.

Gearhart happily admits that Spirit, who has been known to exhibit a slight smile on occasion, upstages her in the classroom. She said being invited to speak to youngsters in classrooms is one of her most gratifying experiences.

"Through the campaign," she said, "I hope to reach the minds, hearts and activism of many so we can ... preserve the dignity of our neighborhoods and strengthen the character of the next generation, so they will have no tolerance for this violence and abuse."

Gearhart, a graduate of Towson High School and then-Towson State Teachers College, taught in Catholic grade schools in the city and at Brown Memorial's weekday school for children ages 2 to 6, in Woodbrook, before she joined the foundation.

Her volunteer life always included working on behalf of animals and the environment, and she was glad to oblige when a friend at the foundation asked her to write an advertisement for a director of education.

She did, then determined, "It was like a job made for me," she said.

Spirit moved her

Save for Gearhart, Spirit might have been among the 10 million dogs and cats that are euthanized in the United States each year because of the over-population problem.

Gearhart knew little of Spirit's life before they met. What she did know was sad.

Spirit weighed less than 26 pounds when a man found her in the middle of the night in the middle of a road, dragging behind her a 25-foot-long chain attached to her collar.

He dropped her off at a local county police station. She had no name. She had no ID tags. Her bottom and incisor teeth were worn down from trying to gnaw off the chain.

She didn't know it at the time, but her life was about to change dramatically.

"This is the luckiest day of your life," the vet who knew Gearhart whispered in the dog's ear. "You'd better be a very smart dog."

Gearhart has been a recipient of the Chesapeake Steward certificate for her efforts to save the bay, and she was named to the city's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force in 2009, and has a standing seat on the Baltimore city's Mayor's Commission on the same topic.

Her lectures and programs have been called "fresh, interesting, appropriate and current," whether she is talking to school children or to the teachers that teach them or the teachers that teach the teachers.

Gearhart has worked closely with Baltimore County Animal Control. Spirit was the fourth rescue she had adopted to become her education assistance dog. Machen, Lucky and Sneakers preceded her in the post.

"They were all different, all incredibly wonderful," Gearhart said.

In 2002, when Sneakers was diagnosed with cancer, Gearhart reluctantly put out the word that she was searching for another dog to take Sneaker's place after she retired.

The county animal shelter called. Gearhart visited the possible recruit at the pound every day for four days and walked her on a leash with Sneakers. The two dogs bonded immediately.

But It would be an important decision. She would live with, work with and love this dog for a long time.

"The fourth day was a Saturday, and there were lots of prospective owners looking over the dogs who were up for adoption," Gearhart said. "I just leaned against a wall watching.

"Everybody walked by her crate and ignored her. Nobody gave her a second thought," she said. "I was amazed. I figured maybe it was God's way of saying, "Get over it, just take her home," Gearhart said.

She did just that. "We struggled for two weeks about what to name her," she said. "Then we saw she would be carrying on the spirit of the dogs who came before her. But she would have her own song."

And so SpiritSong became her partner.

Gearhart still finds their work for the Snyder Foundation to be rewarding, and as a school teacher, she feels it's important to pass along their message about animals and the environment.

"I believe God created the earth for animals as well as people. We don't have dominion over them, we have responsibility for them.

"Everybody is so big on test scores," she said. "When you learn to be a compassionate and empathetic human being, life is the test score for that."

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