For as long as she can remember, Kendall Thirlwell has loved animals.
But for this fourth-grader at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Louisville, Ky., caring for animals extends far beyond her dog and her guinea pig.
Kendall was named the 1996 "National Be Kind to Animals Kid" this fall by the American Humane Association for her work on behalf of animals as a volunteer, fund-raiser, and radio talk-show host.
Three years ago, at age 7, she started to volunteer every Sunday at EnviroPet, an animal shelter and pet store in Louisville.
"First I would start with cleaning the cages and that type of thing," Kendall says in a phone interview. "Then I got more interactive with the animals. I would get them out and play with them and give them attention, because they're in these little kennels and they have to be there all day. Sometimes longer than just a day, because they're not adopted that quickly." She calmed down a feisty cat, for example, and gained the trust of a frightened dog that had been badly abused.
"Kendall has been so helpful," says Jeff Seidenfaden, owner of EnviroPet. "She is so selfless in the way she acts with animals and has proven how one little person can make a big difference."
So impressed was Mr. Seidenfaden that he invited Kendall to have her own spot on his radio show "Creature Feature," Louisville's only radio talk show about pets (on 790 WWKY).
For the past year and a half, Kendall has been the kid correspondent. "If it was another way of helping animals, that was what I wanted to do," she says. "I want to get education out about animals."
On the show, Kendall conducts interviews with kids as well as adults. She spoke with Gary Wilkes, an author and syndicated newspaper pet columnist. Her weekly spots include "Pet Projects" (things young people can do to learn more about animals) and "Pet of the Week" (which highlights a pet in need of adoption, often an older animal).
One time she hosted the entire one-hour show when Seidenfaden temporarily lost his voice. Often she will close with the reminder: "Be responsible pet owners, and love and care for your pets forever."
Last year, Kendall decided to get involved with the Kentucky Humane Society's aluminum-can drive to raise funds for animal shelters. She organized teams of kids at her school and encouraged them to collect cans. Each day she would get on the intercom and say to her schoolmates: "You can help."
Help also came from her family. Her mother did daily pickups from the school. Her dad and older brother, Taylor, helped count the cans. All told, they amassed 15,000 cans - in their basement. That translated into $500 for the Humane Society.
All of Kendall's good work clicked when Seidenfaden learned of the "Be Kind to Animals Kid Contest." He knew Kendall would be the perfect candidate, so he nominated her.
Evidently, the judges thought highly of her, too. "What really impressed us is that a girl her age has such a commitment and concern for homeless animals and animals in shelters," says Michael Kaufmann, director of education at the American Humane Association (AHA). "We couldn't have asked for a better package."
Kendall was awarded $500 worth of pet supplies, which she promptly donated to the Kentucky Humane Society. The AHA flew her to Hollywood, where she met animal movie stars Lassie and Beethoven (who, by the way, has his own dressing room). She also visited the set of "Clueless" to see how trainers work with that TV show's canine actor.
Kendall also received 12 cases of sidewalk chalk worth $500 from Cadaco. "We're thinking of using that for an event to educate people," Kendall says, noting that Earth Day 1997 is a likely date. Her mother, Liz, adds that they may borrow one of the company's slogans, "Drawing attention to animals."
In addition to helping animals, Kendall takes piano lessons, is learning how to juggle, loves to write, and, of course, enjoys spending time with her own animals. "I love my pets very much.... Just tell me if I brag too much" she says, going on to talk about her golden retriever, Hollie, and her guinea pig, Patch. (They get along great, she says.)
"Kendall has been an inspiration to me," Seidenfaden says. "She shows that age doesn't matter, it's what's in your heart and what you set your goals on."
If Kendall could tell people just one thing, what would it be?
"Kids can make a world of difference by getting involved," Kendall replies. "It's important that kids know that they can because sometimes they think, 'Oh, I can't do that,' and they really can. And it doesn't have to be animals, either, it could be helping the poor or the homeless."
Oh, wait: There's one more thing she'd like to tell someone: "I want a cat. Maybe you can tell my dad that!"
Kendall's 3R's Of Pet Adoption Research
* Talk to animal trainers or animal-loving friends about different types of pets.
* Go to dog or cat shows and ask lots of questions.
* Go to the library or bookstore and read, read, read books about animals.
* Borrow a friend's animal to "test" whether you're ready to take on a family pet.
* Spay or neuter your pets.
* Tattooing your pet for identification may help.
* Give your pets what they need most: your love.
* When you get a pet, make a commitment to keep it - forever.
Right reason for getting a pet
* Because animals enrich our lives. Don't adopt an animal just because it's cute or because it's a holiday. Make sure you accept the responsibility and commitment required of pet ownership and are teaching others to do the same.