During a recent afternoon in San Francisco, a veterinarian shepherded a group of seven- and eight-year-olds through the SPCA facility. She paused at kennels filled with anybody’s-best-guesses and talked about how cities and citizens can work together to manage animal populations.
“Does anybody know what ‘spay’ or ‘neuter’ means?” she asked.
A little girl raised her hand. “I know,” she said with expert authority. “It’s when two animals get married and decide not to have babies.”
The girl’s reply illustrates one of the most common and happy side effects of humane education: empathy. In its after-school program “Animal Awareness,” the San Francisco SPCA seeks to enhance children’s compassion, respect and responsibility for animals through firsthand encounters.
“The understanding that all living beings have needs and can suffer when treated cruelly is not innate to any of us,” says Laurie Routhier, SF/SPCA’s Humane Education Manager. “It has to be taught and made real through personal experience, especially in a world where the vast majority of children spend little, if any, time near animals or in nature.”
Animals have an almost magical hold on children (and many adults). Learning anything becomes fun when it involves a rabbit, a guinea pig, a puppy or a kitten, which probably explains why humane societies’ education programs are so popular. Across the country, humane societies are adding programs or expanding existing ones to meet a demand that seems to grow and grow.
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Educating children about kindness and compassion is not virgin territory for humane societies. Humane education began with the humane movement, which took root in this country in the late 1800s. George Thorndyke Angell, the founder of Boston’s MSPCAAngell, started the Bands of Mercy clubs in 1882, inspiring schoolchildren across the nation to take a pledge to be kind to animals. A few years later, Angell founded the American Humane Education Society, and published Anna Sewell’s classic of humane animal treatment, Black Beauty. By 1923,more than four million children belonged to a Band of Mercy club.
The turbulent first half of the 20th century, however, saw humane societies turn their focus more to the plight of animals than the education of children and the public. Not until the late 1960s—as the country left behind the effects of the Great Depression and two world wars and embraced civil rights and the environment—did humane education experience a brief renaissance, this time in American schools. A number of states incorporated the subject into public school curricula. Films about humane behavior and values were shown during science classes or at assemblies. Field trips to humane societies became common. Through the 1970s, the number of books on animal welfare available to schools grew dramatically.
Unfortunately, the next two decades brought budget cuts and dwindling funds for public education, and in many communities, humane education did not survive. Today, its presence in schools is sporadic at best, usually depending entirely upon the enterprise of individual teachers. Recognizing this, humane societies are resuming a more active role in education—through school visits; camps; after-school and junior volunteer programs; and as resource centers for teachers and youth group leaders looking for lesson plans, reading materials and inspiration.
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“Children and animals are the most vulnerable members of society,” says Routhier. “For both groups, abuse is on the rise. Our job is to help reverse that trend, to foster kindness and respect for all living creatures. We want to build a generation of animal advocates, one child at a time.”
With this goal in mind, the San Francisco SPCA last year reached 2,900 students through 13 camp sessions, 72 weekend workshops and after-school classes, and 91 school visits and shelter tours. The curriculum spans animal welfare issues and all aspects of animal behavior, training and care. Everything from cruelty-free shopping to responsible pet guardianship is taught through interactive games and hands-on practice.