Humane Education – another way to prevent cruelty

Albertans are once again horrified to hear of another young person charged with animal cruelty. The case of a dog and cat found dead in Calgary last January, both with their mouths taped shut and suffering from numerous injuries, recalls other events in recent years: Princess the cat, cooked to death in a microwave by three Camrose boys (aged 15 and 13) in 2007; and Daisy Duke, a dog that was tied, dragged and left for dead by a 17 and 19 year old in Didsbury in 2006.

As with previous cases, this is being met with a public call for stronger animal cruelty laws. Rightly so. People are outraged at such violent acts, and any more tools our justice system can use to punish the guilty parties are most welcome. But why stop there? Why not do more to prevent such tragic events from even occurring?

In light of this most recent horrific event, and with the current discussion regarding curriculum redesign, it’s timely to consider the inclusion of humane education in the curriculum in Alberta schools.

Humane Education defined

Humane education – teaching that inspires respect for animals, people and the environment – has long been proposed as a means of preventing violence by instilling a sense of empathy in children. At the core of humane education is the belief that young people who are taught to be kind to animals will grow up to be considerate to other people. Humane education is a form of character education that uses our relationship to other species to help provide perspective on how we treat one another.

Research has confirmed that those who inflict violence to animals often act violently to people as well. Our recent research study, Inside the Cruelty Connection, found that animals are threatened, harmed or killed in 36% of domestic violence situations where animals are present. In 85% of those cases, the children witnessed the threats or actions harming the animal. Without intervention, these children grow into adults with a warped sense of acceptable behaviour, and often act out in other violent ways.

Alberta has a proud and noble heritage of understanding the connection between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence, and of how humane education could make a difference in breaking the cycle of violence. As early as 1904, Alberta’s own Louise McKinney – one of the Famous Five – championed humane education as a means of preventing violence. Within a few years the Alberta Humane Society – forerunner of the Alberta SPCA, Calgary Humane Society and Edmonton Humane Society – was formed, with an emphasis on humane education.

Teachers’ Stories

Over the past 15 years I’ve heard from countless teachers all over the province who were greatly disturbed by certain actions of their students. In some cases students disclosed, in their writing or in discussions, acts of animal cruelty perpetrated either by themselves, friends or family members. In other cases teachers witnessed actual acts of cruelty during school hours. Oftentimes the teachers didn’t have the knowledge or emotional preparedness to respond appropriately. Some however – those who were aware of humane education principles – could respond appropriately.

The story told by one elementary school teacher sticks out. During a class discussion on kindness to animals, one student disclosed that a family member had repeatedly been cruel to their pet dog. The teacher referred the student to counselling, where the student eventually felt safe enough to disclose acts of violence toward other family members. Appropriate action was then undertaken to ensure the safety of all family members.

Stories like this demonstrate the vital importance of humane education, but there’s also research that verifies its effectiveness. One study published in 2010 found that “humane education can foster empathy and reduce the likelihood of aggression toward animals and people. Implementation of humane education programs not only prevents violence, but also increases the likelihood of detecting and intervening early in violence that is already occurring in children’s home environments.” Another report published this year “explains how human-animal interaction can serve as a foundation for teaching compassion in the early years.”

Humane Education K-12

In 2010, Alberta added humane principles in education by emphasizing animal welfare in the new high school CTS Agriculture courses. If humane education were included in the Program of Studies from elementary grades onward we can make a huge difference not only to how children treat animals but also their fellow human beings.

What do you think? Should we make humane education part of the core curriculum?  Click here to add your comments  – and start the discussion in your classroom, staff room and district office.

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