The Importance of Humane Education


By Bill Roach

Recently I shared a post on a local social media community site seeking information regarding a hen shot in the head with a pellet gun or rifle. Although the hen survived, the pellet remained visibly embedded in her head, just behind her right eye. In fact, the gentleman that found the hen in his yard, at first thought someone had adorned the beautiful henny penny with jewelry. Some members of the site responded sadly or angrily at the situation, while others were more nonchalant with their comments. And, although I’m not offended by anyone’s comments, I feel a need to respond and attempt to educate those in our community, that when we act humanely toward animals, we are treating them with compassion and benevolence.

The farmer is not inhumane because chickens are killed for a meal by swiftly chopping off its head. It is cruel and inhumane, however, to shoot one in the head with a pellet that only partially penetrates the skull, inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering to the animal. Animals deserve to be treated humanely and it is our responsibility as humans, regardless of age, to treat them with compassion and benevolence.

Humane education can play an important role in creating a compassionate and caring society. It works toward addressing the root causes of human cruelty and abuse of animals. There is now abundant scientific evidence that animals are sentient beings, with the capacity to experience consciousness, feelings and perceptions; including the ability to experience pain, suffering and states of well-being. This new understanding of the sentience of animals has huge implications for the way we treat them, the policies and laws we adopt, and the way in which we educate our children.

Humane education is the building block of a humane and ethically responsible society. That is why the CA Education Code has a requirement to teach primary and high school children about the humane treatment of animals. When educators carry out this process using successfully tried and tested methods, they help children develop a deep feeling for animals, the environment and other people, based on respect, understanding and empathy. Empathy being the critical element, is often missing in society today and the underlying reason for callous, oftentimes bullying, and violent behavior. In essence, animal welfare education at an early age sets learners upon a valuable life path, based on firm moral values.

When animals are abused and badly treated, with no regard to holding those responsible accountable, it speaks volumes about our ethics and values as a society. While being kind to animals is certainly a nice thing to do, and more importantly the right thing to do, people in leadership roles (most importantly parents) must speak out against animal cruelty when it’s exposed. The abuse of animals is often the first step on the slippery slope of desensitization, the first step down that slope of a lack of empathy and violence. All too often animals are the first victims and what should be seen as a red flag or warning marker, is readily dismissed by parents and teachers as ‘oh well, boys will be boys’, or ‘it’s only a chicken, what’s the big deal?’

Many people consider empathy and compassion to have the same meaning, and they are frequently used interchangeably. However, they are actually quite different:

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is an emotional response to a person’s situation or well-being. The ability to empathize can sometimes be developed when you try to understand how another individual may be feeling – imaging yourself in the same situation and thus feeling the same emotions as the person you are feeling empathy for. However, although you feel the same emotions, you do not take actions on your feelings; you do nothing to alleviate the emotions of the person/animal you are feeling empathy toward.

However, when you feel compassion, you develop a desire to take action. You can understand a person or animal’s pain and suffering. You place yourself in the shoes of the individual, but you feel that you want to do something more to relieve the pain and suffering. Compassion is an emotion which calls for action, so you are motivated to take action to ensure a positive outcome.

Ultimately, the aim of humane education should be the development of compassion, with empathy as an important step in this process. This can be encouraged by the inclusion of practical programs to take action for animals, and the development of a desire to get involved in volunteering in the community.

Humane education is needed in sufficient amounts to develop an empathy and respect for life. More importantly, research by psychologists, sociologists and criminologists has proven a distinct link between animal abuse and human abuse; but that body of science is too in-depth to discuss here and will be addressed in later articles.

Officers, prosecutors and judges recognize that cruelty to animals is but one part of a much larger and complex problem, therefore, it is rarely the goal of law enforcement to imprison a child for cruelty to animals. However, sometimes the justice system response to animal cruelty provides a family its first opportunity to get help. Depending on the severity of the case, those convicted of animal cruelty can be fined, imprisoned and forfeit their right to own or care for animals. Appropriate sentencing can also include individual or family counseling, community service, or placement in a diversion program.

Today, many animal welfare organizations find themselves at the forefront of one of the most important social issues of modern times. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go in educating those responsible for speaking up for those who remain voiceless in our society. As a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, we submit to you that we all play a part in it; the way we treat animals and the way we respond.

“Just then, in my great tiredness and discouragement, the phrase, Reverence for Life, struck me like a flash. As far as I knew, it was a phrase I had never heard nor ever read. I realized at once that it carried within itself the solution to the problem that had been torturing me. Now I knew that a system of values which concerns itself only with our relationship to other people is incomplete and therefore lacking in power for good. Only by means of reverence for life can we establish a spiritual and humane relationship with both people and all living creatures within our reach. Only in this fashion can we avoid harming others, and, within the limits of our capacity, go to their aid whenever they need us.”

Reverence for Life, Albert Schweitzer