KEN WHITE leads a visitor around a room ringed by cages and compounds of assorted sizes, introducing some of his animal friends. Here's Elvis, a resplendent rooster who was seized in a raid on a cockfight. Nearby a couple of roly-poly guinea pigs shuffle and sniff. They turned up, abandoned, in a hotel lobby. Furry Eliot wiggles his nose. He's one of 18 chinchillas rescued from a ``basement fur operation'' where animals had been kept under cruel conditions.
The horned silhouette of a young owl can be glimpsed through the opening in a box set in a large cage. The bird's injured wing means it may be a permanent guest here, explains Mr. White, straining to make himself heard over one of Elvis's piercing crows.
These animals, wards of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SF/SPCA), play a crucial role in a citywide educational effort that has monopolized White's energies in recent years.
``We like to think of them as co-workers,'' he says. The ferret, owl, oppossum, and other creatures rivet the attention of both young students and old, evoking the feelings of empathy and concern that are central to the program.
Trained as a special-education instructor, Mr. White, a bearded, curly-haired young man with the look of a poet, admits to being taken aback when the humane society approached him about designing a program for schoolchildren. He didn't really know that much about animals, but set out to learn.
``I told them I'd give it nine months,'' says the SF/SPCA's education director with a laugh, ``and I've stayed seven years.''
The program, dubbed the ``Animal Awareness Club,'' tries to deepen children's understanding of the needs and feelings of the creatures that share this city with them -- from cats and dogs to wild animals.
White, along with the staff members and volunteers who work with him, will gather a delegation of fowls, rodents, and reptiles into a SF/SPCA vehicle and head for a local school. There, preschoolers through eighth-graders will have a chance to observe the animals up close and even touch them -- all in the context of that day's animal-awareness lesson.
The humane society staff makes it clear to children that the only reason wild animals -- a ferret or owl, perhaps -- are involved in the program is because they were too seriously injured at one time to enable them to survive on their own again in the wilds. The one-eyed oppossum, for example, would be killed by a predator in no time, White explains. When it comes to wildlife, he adds, the basic lesson is ``look, listen, observe, and leave alone.'' Don't try to capture one because they don't make good pets.
``And also it's not in their best interest to be locked in a glass jar or a cage -- whether it's in a home or a zoo,'' he says, supporting the view that animals have rights, too.
All the animals, wild or domesticated, are monitored to make sure that they are not taken to classes too frequently and that they get plenty of rest.
``The animals come first,'' says White. If a classroom is too noisy, the children are warned their visitors will go home right away unless things quiet down -- which is usually enough to calm down even a roomful of five-year-olds. The youngsters learn an important lesson from that, he notes. Waving arms and high voices disturb all animals, and if the children ever want to watch a deer -- or even pet a dog -- the quiet approach is best.
To date, 630 public and private school classes in the city -- embracing some 24,000 children -- have participated in the Animal Awareness Club. Information goes out to every local school. Interested teachers get in touch with White, whose office then sends out the first section of a thick club handbook. Having been a busy classroom teacher himself, White says, he knows enough not to send out the whole package at once.
The 14 classroom sessions embraced by the handbook cover such subjects as local wildlife (of which San Francisco has a ``remarkable'' variety, says White), animal control, and responsible pet care. Small children will learn basics like the difference between stuffed animals and real ones.
There's also a segment dealing with wildlife on an international scale. ``We try to show children what wildlife used to be around the globe, not what it is today,'' White says. He explains that according to conservative estimates, one species of living things (plants, insects, animals) becomes extinct each day.
In these particular lessons, staff members don't work with live animals; they work only with animal byproducts -- cans of whale meat; python skins turned into pocketbooks; carvings made of ivory from the elephant, walrus, and whale; bracelets created from elephant tails; and hair conditioner and face creams made from sea turtles.
``We show them what once was an animal, trying to get them to connect this to the plight that many animals face today,'' White says.
These lessons are fairly ``hard hitting,'' he notes, with their emphasis on the killing of animals for nonessential commercial uses. Children learn that not only killing but also human population expansion into ``wild areas'' such as woods, prairies, deserts, and tropical rain forests takes its toll on animal life.
This entire segment on wildlife constitutes a ``preventive approach,'' White explains. In the future, if young people have the opportunity to buy a wild or exotic animal, they'll be able to evaluate the situation intelligently. They'll be armed with knowledge -- an awareness that only about 20 percent of wildlife specimens survive their trip to the pet stores; 80 percent die en route from their natural habitats (parrots and iguanas being two of the most abused, according to White). Kno wing these facts, young people can better determine if they want to support this type of commercial venture.
All the classes were conceived by White to zero in on his central concept, ``awareness.'' In the past, he says, humane-education programs tried to ``teach kindness.'' In his view, you can't really ``teach'' that quality, but it can be discovered within, and the key to discovering it is understanding, a deeper appreciation of what animals experience.
The present course is geared primarily to elementary school children, but White is ``piloting'' a curriculum for teen-agers as well, which includes sections on careers with animals and ``humane biology.'' He'd like to see high schools do away with all experimentation on live animals in favor of an ``observational'' approach, though he tries not to ``preach'' about this, he says. The idea, he explains, is simply to present an alternative.
High-schoolers, by the way, can be challenging audiences for the humane society educational team. Once a teen-ager asked why an organization that preached concern for animals killed so many of them every year. In response, White tried to outline the overpopulation problem; he also explained the process by which animals are put to sleep.
White also teaches a night course on ``animal awareness education'' through the extended-education program of San Francisco State University. The adults in the class learn how to set up animal awareness programs for children, with lessons on ways of training animals and how to handle grief over the loss of a pet, among other subjects.
Adults respond to these classes -- and to the animals -- with some of the same enthusiasm children show, according to White. He recalls the time he taught a class in the county jail and took along a few of the SF/SPCA's feathered and furry denizens. The prisoners were a tough lot, including some men convicted of violent crimes, he says, but the ``very fragile little animals'' transformed them. They were ``so respectful of the animals and so interested in learning.'' It was an ``incredibly positive'' exp erience for the prisoners, the guards who joined in, and for White himself, who admits to having had qualms beforehand.
But his favorite memory comes from a session with a group of young children after a class. He asked them what they'd gotten from it and one little girl said simply, ``I learned I am a part of everything.''
It ``couldn't have been better if I'd given her a script,'' says White, beaming the smile of a satisfied teacher.