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Humane Education History

Humane Education: an idea whose time has come

Current research is proving there is a correlation between cruelty to animals and violence toward people. This corresponds to the belief of early humane educators who felt that teaching kindness to animals would encourage more compassion to people. (The National Museum of Animals & Society has a virtual exhibit of the history of Humane Education).

Louise McKinney, one of the Famous Five who championed the cause of violence prevention and equal rights, brought the humane movement to public attention in Alberta over a hundred years ago. At the first convention of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) held in Edmonton in 1904, she successfully introduced this resolution: “That we earnestly entreat the members of the WCTU to discourage by their example the use of bird plumage for millinery purposes, and that we encourage the formation of humane societies and bands of mercy.”

The “bands of mercy” referred to are what might today be called “kindness clubs” and were promoted by George Angell, founder of the Massachusetts SPCA and originator of the phrase humane education in the late 19th century. While we can only presume that a hundred years ago the need for furs prohibited any protest against trapping, Louise and her group recognized the needless extravagance of using bird feathers in hats for mere decorative purposes and wanted to reduce the use of animals wherever possible. It is interesting to note that three years after her resolution was adopted, the Alberta Humane Society (forerunner of both the Alberta SPCA and the Edmonton Humane Society) was formed. The founding of the Calgary Humane Society soon followed.

More recently, in 1980 the Standing Senate Committee on Health, Welfare and Science studying the rise in juvenile violence stated in its report to the Canadian Parliament:

If we are to teach children how to respect their human and natural environment and all its elements, they must be taught they are a part of nature… One of the objectives of education from nursery school onwards must be to give children a balanced sensitivity to life – a humane education.*

Unfortunately, the committee’s detailed proposal for implementing humane education in schools across the country was never acted upon. Given the current concern about violence in schools and in society in general, the committee’s proposals deserve another look. Specifically, the key elements of humane education were summed up as follows:

Humane education in the schools should work on four levels. It should include:

  • factual information about animals, people and the environment and their inter-relationship;
  • problem solving skills to assist students in critical thinking and making intelligent choices; 
  • a climate in which the worth of the individual is stressed and each child is encouraged to develop a positive self-image (essential to valuing others); and 
  • values, or moral education, focusing on the rights of other living beings and human responsibilities toward them.*

*(Above quotes are taken from Bonnell, Hon. M. Lorne, Chairman, Child at Risk: A Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Health, Welfare and Science. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1980, p. 63.)