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Friday, Jan. 5, 2018

Anyone Can Be an animal hero

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Wearing a bright green cape, mask and “listening ears,” the Animal Hero goes from school to school teaching students the responsibilities of pet ownership. She gives presentations to kids all over the United States at churches, schools and even online. The goal is to educate them at a young age on the importance of being a responsible pet owner.

Underneath the bright green mask, the Animal Hero’s true identity is Erica Callais Falbaum. She is the founder of the Pet Education Project (PEP) and the real reason kids leave PEP! Talks with a huge smile on their face.

Founded in 2009, PEP is a nonprofit organization, education and outreach program that teaches the core responsibilities

of pet ownership. They strive to foster humane habits in children and citizens of our community in order to reduce pet overpopulation, abuse, neglect and euthanasia. Although PEP began in Louisiana, there are now 10 national chapters using PEP’s curriculum and programs.

Falbaum travels all over the country with PEP giving interactive presentations dressed up as the Animal Hero. Her presentations are fun, theatrical and educational. In the PEP! Talks, she goes over important concepts like heartworm prevention, animal safety, spaying and neutering, as well as other topics.

“These are topics that are very difficult for kids to understand, but we make them very fun and relatable,” Falbaum said. “We get kids excited about it.”

PEP has given presentations to nearly every elementary and middle school in the area, according to Falbaum. With a hope to reach more children, she expanded her outreach by posting her presentations online with PEP! Squad videos.

“It’s been such a game changer,” she said. “We educate thousands of kids every day through these videos. It is just amazing.”

Even at a young age, Falbaum was an avid animal lover and advocate. She grew up on a farm with tons of animals in Cut Off, La. In a town where there was only one vet and one shelter, she saw how not spaying and neutering your pets could lead to overpopulation. Falbaum began volunteering at local shelters and was shocked at what she saw.

“I was so stunned at how many animals were surrendered there [shelter] every day,” she said. “It seemed really shocking that we were dealing with so many animals that didn’t have homes. That was very sad for me. I just thought, wow, we need to do something bigger about this problem.”

She started to educate people as they came to the animal shelter. One day a family with a group of kids came in, and Falbaum figured out who her target audience should be for her education program.

“A lightbulb went off, and I had my A-Ha Moment,” Falbaum said. “I knew we had to educate to stop these pets from ever having to enter the shelter. I figured if we could educate them when they are young, we could stop these cycles from ever happening.”

In March of 2009, Falbaum went to her first classroom to educate the students. The kids were so receptive, so she did more research to figure out how she could turn her program into a nonprofit organization.

Fast forward eight years later, and PEP has reached over 500,000 kids, with that number growing rapidly each day. Through PEP, Falbaum has become the author, creator and editor in-chief of Happy Tails Magazine. She also published a children’s book entitled “PEP! Squad, The 5 Steps to a Happy and Healthy Pet.” The rhyming book goes over the same topics that Falbaum teaches in her presentations. With her busy schedule, she had to write the book using voice memos while driving in her car.

“I never thought that I’d be an author, or a Pawuthor, as I like to say. The whole book rhymes. It’s adorable.”

Founding PEP has given Falbaum the opportunity to put all of her talents to use. She majored in photography at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston. This came in handy since she is the primary person that takes photos for PEP. She also incorporates her love for theatrics into her PEP!

Talks, where she dresses up as the Animal Hero and dances around with puppets to get the crowd excited. Falbaum has found a way to entertain kids while also teaching them important concepts.

“I love the performance of it, and I just love hearing kids get it,” she said. “I have kids that come up to me afterwards and tell me they’re going to play with their pets every day or they tell me they are going to spay and neuter their pet. I think it’s just instant gratification. They understand why it’s important.”

She wanted to inspire kids with the Animal Hero character because in her presentation she always asks, “Who wants to be an Animal Hero?” She loves wearing the bright green cape, but most of all she loves seeing the kids dress up as the character.

“The kids can also buy the cape and dress up as an Animal Hero,” Falbaum said. “It is the most popular item we sell on our website. We inspire them to be Animal Heroes, too. It’s really awesome.”

PEP also recognizes kids that go above and beyond to help animals. Kids all around the U.S. can be surprised with the PEP! Star Award. Falbaum hopes the award inspires other kids to help animals in need. She wants kids to know that even though they are small, they can make a big difference.

“I love meeting all the little Animal Heroes out there that are going to one day take over PEP,” she said. “I see these incredible kids who are doing more than I did at their age. I love looking toward the future because you can see how bright it is going to be because of them.”

Falbaum says she has always been a dreamer. She always hoped that PEP would continue to grow until it reached every state and even countries all around the world. This dream could soon become a reality as PEP works with a group based in Austin to launch a line of pet toys that pair with an app in 2018. Falbaum hopes to use technology to get kids to play with their pets instead of only playing on their phones.

Even with all the success PEP has received, Falbaum still wants to do more.

She is always looking forward to the future and seeing PEP grow.

“I’ve always had a passion for animals.

My passion is to live in a world where we don’t have millions of animals going into shelters because we don’t have a home for them or anywhere for them to go. My goal is to eliminate that. It’s what keeps me going.”

If you want to help this small non-profit organization do big things, then you can go to their site, www.ilovepep.org/donate, to donate. PEP is always looking for sponsors and donors to help out.

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