Remembering Sheena

Stop Animal Abuse in Malaysia.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sunway College Lecturers Teach Students To Love And Respect Animals

Hi! Check out my stories in the STAR Weekender. Don't forget to click on link at the end to read the second story on animal assisted therapy.

The STAR Newspaper, Saturday July 26, 2008


Most people don’t get a kiss and a cuddle when they arrive at work. But the lecturers at Sunway University College’s School of Health and Natural Sciences do — from the pets that accompany them to work.

These lecturers have banded together to teach a unique course called Pet Behaviour Studies, which is part of the psychology programme at Sunway College and unheard of in most local universities.

Don’t be surprised if you should see the animals teaching the students in this programme!

Photo caption: From left: Dr Sagathevan Kuppusamy showing Vrinda Yajna Rupa Prabakaran, Gerard Goh Nai King, Sindhu Nair and Wong Poh Wan how to handle a sugar glider.

In one class, the star attraction is psychology lecturer Dr Cheong Sau Kuan’s two-year-old pet ferret. Dr Cheong would cover up her pet’s favourite toy and every single time the ferret would find it — unless it got weary of the game and found the students’ bags more interesting.

“Pet Behaviour Studies changed my life. I never saw animals the same way again,” Sara Chen Su-May, 21, says aloud amidst loud applause and laughter from the class over the ferret’s antics.

Chen completed her psychology studies a year ago and has returned to Sunway College as an intern. Inspired by her lecturers, she started a blog to educate people on how to take the time and effort to learn amazing things about their pets for a more enriching bond.

The new course is often an eye-opener for the students.

One group, who still had heavy medical facts swimming around in their brains from the last class, walked into one such class and was surprised to find animals that were not drugged, dissected or caged. They wondered if this was a break from class instead of an actual class when told they were allowed to follow the animals around.

“Children these days have lost the power of observation,” laments Dr Teoh Hsien-Jin, 42, who heads the psychology department.

“There are so many things in this world that distract them. Children grow up to be people who have no depth and are later susceptible to stress and mental illness.

“Animals can teach us how to de-stress if we know how to cohabit with them properly. Pet Behaviour Studies cultivates a student’s sense of observation. As we understand animals, we also begin to understand ourselves.”

In her class, Dr Cheong is demonstrating how rabbits and hamsters respond to colours.

“Our experiments are like games which both the students and animals enjoy. It stimulates the mind and at the same time, teaches young people that animals are intelligent creatures. Students then learn to be sensitive to other human beings, especially those who are not like them,” says Dr Cheong.

“Being sensitive is a key factor in the making of a great psychologist.”

Student Rubyni Krishnan, 20, confesses that her own relationship with her pets has improved tremendously after the course.

“I carried out a project that investigated whether hamsters are able to distinguish more than one object. Through it, I learnt how to train and understand my own pets,” says Rubyni.

Photo caption : Dr Sagathevan’s students get up close and personal with his tarantula and leopard gecko. — UU BAN LEONG/The Star

Dr Teoh explains that most concepts in psychology, such as dominance, relationship, bonding and others, are derived from observing animals, so what they are doing in this pet course isn’t all that unusual.

Dr Sagathevan Kuppusamy, 48, who heads the Department of Science and Engineering Resources, is collaborating with Dr Teoh in studying animals in a non-clinical setting. He teaches biology, and his students know him as “the commando lecturer” because he considers nature his classroom.

Often, they would go with him on expeditions into the forest or to the ocean to observe animals in their natural surroundings.

He was the first to design and build an Animal Room for his pets. When Dr Teoh and Dr Cheong brought their pets to work, Dr Sagathevan helped them create a home for their pets that closely resembled their natural habitat.

“I spend long hours observing, studying and interacting with animals in the wild. When I learnt that Drs Teoh and Cheong shared my love of animals, we decided to pool our resources to work together for the benefit of the students,’’ says Dr Sagathevan.

Dr Sagathevan also teaches a subject called Pet Studies under the pet behaviour course. His pets — a sugar glider, green iguana, leopard gecko and some frogs — have all accompanied him to class so that students can learn about their habitat, what they eat and the proper way to hold them.

He explains that nocturnal animals like the sugar glider prefer minimal activity during the day.

“Many commercial zoos don’t bother about this, and cause the animals great stress by allowing people to disturb them all day long. These zoos also do not teach the public the proper way to hold animals. Indirectly, they are sending a message that it is all right to manhandle them.

“I was quite shocked when I saw painted chicks being sold at a pasar malam. I’ve seen shops selling fish injected with dye to make them luminous. All these are done by ignorant people,” says Dr Sagathevan.

Just two months ago, the lecturers set up a Pet Club for Sunway College students to learn the proper way to bond with their pets.

Randy Chuah, president of the Malaysian Tarantula Society, is grateful to Sunway College for allowing their tarantulas to make guest appearances at the Pet Behaviour Studies classes and at the college’s open day when parents and the public visit. The society was founded by Sunway College’s alumni in 2005 and is fully supported and managed by these former students.

“We chose to champion the cause of tarantulas because they are seriously misunderstood by society,” says Chuah.

“In a way, we are speaking out against society’s ignorance. Our planet is suffering from this ignorance. We too were ignorant until our lecturers opened our eyes. As we studied what tarantulas ate and how the different trees and shrubs provide food and shelter for them, we even began to look at trees differently.

“In the past, trees were just part of the landscape, but now we see them as a vital part of the eco-system for the survival of all forms of life, including mankind,” Chuah opines.

Towards the end of the class, the students settle down to watch a video on “occupational” animals. Dogs are shown helping the blind and monkeys helping paraplegics.

As the video plays, Dr Teoh concludes in a quiet corner at the back of the class, “We want to create a stimulating environment for our students, to open up a whole world of possibilities so that they will learn to face every challenge in life with ethics and a positive regard for others.”

o Psychology is a three-year degree programme at Sunway University College. The next intake for this programme will be on August 14. To learn more call (03) 7491 8622.

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