Critters and Co. uses animals to teach lessons to kids and adults, alike
By Matt Kane
The smelly, spike-haired, chubby kid eating animal crackers at the Delano Elementary School Wednesday was not one of the third graders.
At least not the one hanging out all day in the all-purpose room. That kid’s name was Elmo. He’s a porcupine.
Elmo and eight of his animal kingdom friends were at the elementary school teaching the kindergarten through fourth grade students how to deal with teasing in a program titled “Harassment in Disguise.”
Elmo’s part of the presentation concentrated on how to deal with a situation where one might be getting teased. Elmo, through the voices of the two humans in his posse of animal friends husband and wife Greg and Diane Olson, questioned the audience on how they might react to being teased.
The group of students and teachers concluded that a person being teased should walk away, ignore the teaser, ask the teaser to stop, and/or tell an adult.
Elmo was the fifth act in each of the four sessions Wednesday. He was preceded by “Tenah,” an African gray parrot, who showed the students it’s not fun to be around someone who teases; the hedgehog pair of “Maverick” and “Pedy,” who showed that different people or animals react differently to actions; “Mr. Iguana,” who showed that teasing can leave lasting damage to the recipient; and “Anna,” a chicken who pointed out that people are different than other animals because they have empathy and can make a difference.
Following Elmo’s act was “Teal,” a rescued red tail hawk, who spread the message, “Sorry is good; change is better.”
“I think it was a fabulous program,” said first grade teacher Jill Anderson, who was volunteered by student Reier Sjomeling to participate in a demonstration with the two hedgehogs. “It was very kid-friendly and well-done.”
The furry, feathery, and leathery animals at the school Wednesday are all members of Critters & Co., Inc., a business run by the Olsons at their home in Buffalo. The purpose of the business, which houses 30 animals, is to spread healthy messages to the audience using the animals and story telling.
“When you use live animals in story telling, the adults’ and kids’ defenses are down,” Greg Olson said. “I’ve had some corporate human resources people say, ‘I worked two hours to tell my employees what you told them in two minutes.’”
Trips to school around Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the greater Chicago area have made up a large portion of the Olsons’ schedule since they started presenting part-time in 1989, but the couple also totes its animals into corporate buildings to talk to adult professionals.
The business became a full-time gig in 1993, and has kept the Olsons and their animals busy ever since. The visit to Delano was one of four appearances Critters and Co. had scheduled for the week.
The message Wednesday in Delano focused on teasing, but the Olsons also tackle issues from dealing with diversity to team building.
Greg Olson said the fun part about his job is seeing people put to use what he taught them.
“It’s enjoyable to watch kids capture something and use it,” he said.
It was evident, when sitting in on one of the presentations at the elementary school Wednesday, that the animals, especially Elmo, are the stars of the show.
But a review session following Teal’s squawk revealed the kindergartners in that particular group retained the messages the Olsons were teaching.
“The issue is getting them to believe,” Greg Olson said. “This school was really good. These students were willing to learn right away.”
The animals aided the students’ willingness to learn.
“The animals keep a captive audience and allow the message to come across,” Anderson said. “It was very effective.”