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Love and Learn – Why we need humane education

William Samuels, Ph.D.


Love and Learn
Why we need humane education.

Because learning to care is learning to act, it’s important to know how to help those we care about. This is especially true for kids, who form an understanding of who they are based on what they do. When we show them that they can help animals, they learn that they can make a real difference in the world. Match a strong sense of compassion with competency, and great things can happen-for animals and children alike.

What Pets Need
One way that the ASPCA’s Humane Education department helps children become kind, capable young adults is by teaching them to care for animals. In addition to developing humane education materials for thousands of classrooms across the country, the department visits hundreds of classrooms each year. One of the programs that we bring to students begins with a discussion about what pets need. Perhaps the greatest personal reward of this inquiry-based exercise is that invariably-with no prompting from us-a child will raise his or her hand and say, “Pets need love, too.” As we guide the children in exploring how a pet’s needs are both similar to and different from our own, we increase their ability to empathize, and show them that they can also extend caring and humane action to their families, peers and communities.

Looking into the children’s eyes and listening to what they say, it’s evident that they are beginning to understand how to help the animals right around them. It’s difficult to convey this success to those who don’t see it firsthand, so we are conducting controlled studies on the effectiveness of this program. Initial results show that the participating children increase their knowledge of pet care by an average of 20 percent.

Cool Like Me
As children mature, they can do more to care for animals. Teenagers can even take their skills into the community to help those who need it most-but that’s a topic for another article. For now, we can say that when educating older kids, the situation is somewhat reversed. Younger children often have a strong sense of wonder about animals, but don’t know how to care for them; older children have often learned many ways to help animals, but may have lost some of their innate curiosity.

One of the ways that we can help older children rekindle their interest in animals-and benefit from the far-reaching values they can teach-is by demonstrating how the animals in our lives, and wild animals, too, share many of our basic needs. Apes adopt orphans, for example; meerkats baby-sit for relatives. Elephants protect and appear to mourn their dead. Studies have revealed that chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys have a sense of fairness. Most mammals love to play, and gorillas even like having pets of their own! By demonstrating how similar we really are, books like Jane Goodall’s The Chimpanzees I Love, Cristina Kessler’s Jubela and Etta Kaner’s Animal Talk-all excellent additions to a student’s reading list-testify to how easily we can expand our circle of caring to other animals.

Animal Admiration
Humane education allows children to do more than learn about other animals-it helps children learn from them. Woven throughout the vast diversity of the animal world are countless sources of inspiration: the doting patience with which Emperor penguin fathers hold single eggs on their feet for nine weeks; the selflessness of killdeer, who will act as though they’re wounded to draw the attention of predators away from their babies; the teamwork of a dolphin pod, whose members take turns lifting the sick to the water’s surface; and the bravery of Norman, a blind Labrador retriever who risked his life to save a drowning girl (as told in Andrew Clements’s great book, Pets to the Rescue: Brave Norman-A True Story).

As similar as we are, we must remember that animals are not four-legged humans. Each life fills a unique role in nature and has its own special needs. Humane education teaches us that we can help those we love most when we best understand them and their unique perspective. Understanding and action-a powerful combination. Animals give us all a chance to enrich our lives by caring. If we learn how and why to help animals, we both gain. If we don’t, we both lose. AW

Bill Samuels ( is the director of ASPCA Humane Education. He has a Ph.D. in educational assessment.

Reprinted from ASPCA Animal Watch, Summer 2004, Vol. 24, No. 2, with permission from The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 424 East 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128-6804

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424 East 92nd Street
New York, NY 10128

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