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Humane Education—Teaching Kindness

How children learn to become animal advocates
By Rikke Jorgensen, June 2009, Updated February 2022

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.”


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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.

Good poop-scooping technique, for example, is developed through the crowd-pleasing Poop Scoop Relay Race, which involves an ample supply of Snickers bars, Tootsie Rolls and bio bags. The trick to winning is not to let any stray bits (the Tootsie Rolls) escape. Sponge Puppy, an exercise on early socialization, uses plastic cups, water, a variety of food colors and animal sponge capsules. The food colors represent different experiences: baseball games; crowded sidewalks; visits to the vet; and living with cats, sirens, garage doors and so on. The children imagine what their hypothetical puppy might encounter in his life, and then make up a colorful liquid recipe that, once soaked up by the sponge, will result in a happy, well-adjusted adult dog.

Julie Haggerty’s 10-year-old daughter, Bridget Kraus, spent two weeks at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley’s Camp Muddy Paws last summer—and she was lucky to get in.
“It’s the most popular camp around,” Haggerty explains. “If you don’t sign up within two hours of when registration opens, you can’t get in. They take online registrations now, but a couple of years ago, you had to go there and stand in line. People got there at five in the morning.”

As one of the lucky students who secured a spot in the program, Bridget still raves about her experiences: the dog training; the grooming; the real-life surgical procedure she got to watch, even though she had to lean against a tiled wall when she became slightly dizzy. Months later, she wrote stories for school about Bullseye, a kitten named for his fondness for jumping onto shoulders or into arms from high places. Her time at camp made Bridget appreciate animals’ individual needs and personalities, adding a new level of understanding to her existing love for them.

“She handles animals much better since Camp Muddy Paws,” Haggerty says. “We have three cats at home, and I’ve been telling the kids for a long time not to just pick them up. At camp, Bridget really took that in for the first time. Now she lets the cats come to her.”

Bridget’s new understanding highlights a point humane educators often make: These lessons teach kids not only to watch for and recognize body language cues; they also instill respect and impulse control. Brushing a dog’s coat cultivates grooming skills, but also a sense of responsibility. Matted coats are uncomfortable and can lead to disease—and your pet’s health and comfort are yours to protect. The list of positive qualities fostered by interactions with animals goes on: patience, cooperation, gentleness, perseverance, a caring attitude, initiative.

The effect can be downright transformative. Just ask Carol Rathmann. She has spent 17 years building the Forget-Me- Not Farm at the Humane Society & SPCA of Sonoma County, Calif., into a haven for at-risk children and rescued animals. The Farm welcomes around 350 children a year, partnering with county agencies that care for children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect, or because their parents are incarcerated or in treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. Vulnerable and traumatized, these children have not participated in Scouts or Little League or afterschool programs. They’ve had few chances to learn humane values, or even basic life skills, like asking for what they want or working with others to solve a problem. In the peaceful setting of the Forget-Me-Not Farm, all that changes.

Rathmann, a registered vet tech with a graduate degree in psychology, says the children absorb lessons in many ways; the Farm’s volunteers are well aware that they serve as role models, for example. But the true teachers at the Farm are the animals and the garden.

Mother Nature dictates the list of chores. In the winter, the children are in the barn, grooming and caring for the animals. Or they dress in donated rain boots and ponchos and walk the llamas and the miniature donkey outside. Springtime means frantic planting, sowing the vegetable garden and the year’s corn maze. Summer is for bottle-feeding puppies and kittens and bathing hot animals. The children collect eggs from rescued hens and harvest zucchinis, sunflower seeds, tomatoes and strawberries. Come autumn, there are apples to pick and pumpkins to carve for Halloween.

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.

Many humane education programs are funded separately from humane societies in general—wholly, in the case of the Forget-Me-Not Farm; partially, in the case of San Francisco SPCA’s camp scholarships for children from low-income families. A designated donation is the best way to reach any of these programs.

Humane Society & SPCA of Sonoma County:
Specify “Forget-Me-Not-Farm”

Humane Society of Boulder Valley:
Specify “Camp Muddy Paws”

The San Francisco SPCA:
Specify “Humane Education Scholarship Fund”

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. 

Photo: AdobeStock