- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Humane educator Cory Smith sometimes leads a class with a role-playing exercise. She talks to the fifth-graders, using hypothetical numbers, about how much room the Washington Humane Society's shelter might have to house unwanted pets.

"Say we have 50 occupied cages or runs, and we impound 20 animals in one day," she begins. "Let's figure out what to do next."

Participants are assigned roles there is the cute kitten, the sick poodle, the aggressive pit bull. What should happen to each of these animals when there no longer is space at the facility? Send it to a different shelter, suggests one child. Nope, no room there, either, replies Ms. Smith. Find it a new home? Nobody wants it, says Ms. Smith. One child suggests sending it to a different country.

"They come up with every option, and we go through all the motions," Ms. Smith says. "Finally, one student ultimately will yell out, 'Kill it' And we agree on it."

Much of humane education is focused on responsibility and sound decisions, Ms. Smith explains. She presents euthanasia, for example, not as a solution but as a symptom of the problem.

"Yes, this dog had to be euthanized. So, what can we do to prevent this from happening again?" she asks the children.

"When we finally do decide what to do with an animal, the children get really upset," Ms. Smith says. "Many feel angry about it, and some feel really sad. Even the toughest kids withdraw somehow."

"Children have a natural affinity for animals," says Lisa Lange, director of policy and communications for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "It's only when adults step in and teach children it's OK to hurt animals do they change their viewpoint. The lessons adults must teach instead are that animals have value and the capacity to suffer. This must be considered so the child may grow up to be a more compassionate person."

Psychologist Barbara Boat agrees. "Most of pro-social behavior, which is what compassion is, is learned," she says. "You have to live in an environment where it is modeled and reinforced."

Behavior specialists agree that many young children hurt animals unintentionally.

"Pulling the cat's tail because the child likes the sound the cat makes obviously is more innocent than the child who comes home from school and kicks the dog," Ms. Lange says.

"But it's understood that you can start teaching kids empathy before they start walking. Teach your kids that birds don't want to be chased and squirrels don't want to have rocks thrown at them. Teach them why," she says.

Intentional cruelty usually rears its head at an average age of 6* years, explains psychologist Mary Lou Randour from her Chevy Chase office. Parents must intervene if they witness such an act, she says.

"Remove the animal. I wouldn't be harsh or punitive, but I would tell the child that everyone needs to feel safe and protected. Ask the child what made him or her do it. Ask how they think the animal felt when they were doing it to them."

Finally, Ms. Randour says, "I would invite them under close supervision to have a positive contact with the animal, and then carefully watch them around the animal."

Parents should never dismiss a cruel act as a normal developmental stage, advises Randall Lockwood, vice president for research and educational outreach at the Humane Society of the United States.

"Intentionally causing pain and suffering is not normal," he says. "We need to get away from the idea of 'boys will be boys' as an excuse for tolerating intentional harm. Neither does it mean that every child that hurts an animal is destined to become a serial killer. Parents need to figure out why it was done. Is it the proverbial cry for help? A lot depends on the age of the child and the intent behind it … and how [the act] became known."

In the end, all caring parents want their children to grow up to be mature, responsible adults with a full emotional life.

"We are talking about emotional intelligence here," Ms. Randour says. "People with emotional intelligence often are the most successful in life sometimes achieving more and are more content with their lives. And on a societal level, I don't know about you, but I'd rather live around compassionate people."

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