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Humane Education—Teaching Kindness
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The animals offer constant lessons in boundary setting, and the children learn those lessons, sometimes without even realizing it. Rathmann carefully chooses animals for the sanctuary based on which ones will be good boundary teachers, one way or the other, because nearly all the children in the program have suffered violations that have damaged their own sense of what is and is not okay to do to others. Nico and Buddy, the LaMancha goats, are nosy, obnoxious, in-your-face creatures. If you don’t want a muzzle in your pocket, you have to communicate it clearly or walk away. The llamas, on the other hand, are reserved. Developing the kind of relationship that makes a llama come up and greet you takes time and commitment. You can’t force your affection on them either. Llamas brook no nonsense.

With every visit, the children take away lessons about personal space. It is not acceptable to invade someone else’s space, nor do you have to allow anyone to trample yours—everyone is entitled to be approached in a manner with which they are comfortable. The animals also teach many other things by example. Raymond the scaredy calf demonstrates daily how good it feels to be comforted when you are frightened. Carmen the miniature donkey always seeks out the kids who feel down and gently pesters them for a cuddle, almost as though she understands that scratching her withers for half an hour can make a person feel better about the world.

“They get to be children here and that in itself is a magical experience for them,” Rathmann says. “The program helps them heal. The kids connect intensely with the rescued animals— they too have been abused or neglected. At its core, humane education is about how we treat living beings, and as a therapeutic method, it’s very effective at helping children break free from patterns of violence.”

In other words, if you can imagine another’s pain, it becomes harder to ignore or inflict it. Empathy curbs cruelty. Seen in this context, humane education is some of the most important work humane societies do. Initiatives around animal population control, shelter adoptions and responsible breeding can only take root in a public that understands and cares about animal welfare. And where better to start the work of changing cultural value systems than with children? After all, someone who thinks animals have the right to marry and decide the size of their own family is more likely to treat any animal, including a person, with respect and not as disposable property. 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 54: May/Jun 2009
Rikke Jorgensen is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

Photographs by Kelli Yon

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