Attitudes Towards Animals: What message are we sending?

I hate to admit it, but I’m not a fan of spiders – and that’s putting it mildly. I don’t like how they mechanically dart around with their eight hairy legs, staring at me with their multiple orb eyes. They just creep me out. But other than their unworldly appearance – which they can’t help – why do I have such a distaste? Is it fair? How are my words and actions being interpreted by others, especially little ones?

After some reflection, I am now more measured in my response to seeing spiders – because my reaction indicated to others that spiders are scary. It’s nearly impossible to be kind and compassionate when your fight or flight response is engaged.

What we do and say matters – and might matter more than you think.

Our attitudes towards animals affect the way we treat them, which ultimately impacts their welfare. We aren’t surprised to hear people say, “I hate cats” or “snakes are gross” but how do young ones interpret these messages? Animals that we dislike or deem unappealing are not less worthy of respect or proper care.

People naturally have more positive attitudes towards animals that are more familiar to them, such as dogs for some, and cats for others. We also tend to empathize with animals that we are more similar to, either biologically or in social structure. Animals with hard to interpret emotions, like reptiles, or who are unfamiliar to us, like octopuses – are viewed more negatively than our more similar phylogenetic cousins. But these views ought to be challenged; What is so gross about a snake? And how much do you really know them?

Some species, like spiders in my case, can elicit fear. Fear is natural response that has helped us to stay safe against predators and other things that could kill us. There are dangers inherent with many animals, however through fostering a healthy respect and teaching children how to safely interact (or, in many cases avoid interaction) with animals is more productive. Fear shuts down our ability to empathize – but by being open, and curious, and modeling these characteristics we can reduce fear and help bolster positive attitudes towards all animals.

A lovely teacher I chatted with at a past Teachers’ Convention uses her pet tarantula to teach the message of acceptance. Many students are scared of the tarantula at first, but they explore this fear. Being curious can reduce fear and help students be more open to learning, and this builds empathy and understanding. She then relates this example to how we treat other people. Just like with animals, people generally fear those who are different from themselves. But with an open mind and a sense of curiosity we can foster empathy which is necessary to combat xenophobia.  

When a spider shows up in my space uninvited I make sure to calmly, at least outwardly, help the spider find their way outdoors and send them off with a good luck pep talk as they scramble from the cup to sidewalk.  Little eyes watch as we demonstrate kindness and respect towards living creatures -and they model us too.

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