During my childhood, about 20 million dogs and cats were euthanized each year. Across the country, strays and problem animals were rounded up by the dogcatcher and taken to the city pound. “Family” dogs were either running loose or tied up in the backyard. Most rarely saw the inside of the house, and people certainly didn’t spend the billions of dollars they do today on food, bedding or veterinary care.
Luckily, times have changed. Today, the annual number of dogs euthanized is less than 4 million. This significant reduction can be attributed to several approaches, including animal advocacy, low cost spaying and neutering, and the creation of family-friendly animal adoption centers. We have slowly moved away from a culture dominated by the idea that killing animals is an acceptable form of population control toward a humane perspective for our animal companions. During the last 40 years, the number of dogs and cats in U.S. households has also doubled, a sign that they are viewed as family members instead of livestock. The scientific world began to recognize this phenomenon as well, and it was during the 1980s that we saw the first significant research noting the evidence of the human-animal bond. This increased closeness has contributed to our feelings of responsibility for the animals in our lives. By seeing dogs and cats as family, we are more emotionally committed to finding alternative approaches to overpopulation.
Could children be an answer to ending animal overpopulation?
Today, there is a multi-billion dollar industry more than ready to take advantage of this increase in popularity. The industry sadly also includes unscrupulous puppy mill breeders and callous pet stores selling animals strictly for profit. How do we keep reducing the number of animals being euthanized, while the popularity of having a dog or cat at home continues to grow? Rather than take an adversarial position against these groups, what if we put more energy into teaching our children to respect animals? Could we improve the situation at shelters by encouraging our youth to protect and help animals? Would we be able to keep dogs from being discarded if we increase children’s understanding of animal behavior through camps and hands-on activities? Teaching the younger generation to respect animals can contribute directly to creating a no-kill country.
In the bestseller “Animals Make Us Human,” Temple Grandin warns about people becoming “abstractified” or disconnected from the natural world. In addition, she notes that, “Things have changed. People who wanted to help animals used to study animal behavior. Today, they go to law school.” This detachment she writes about could be resolved by consciously bringing man’s connection to animals into children’s lives at an early age. Research has shown that having empathy for others, including animals, is something parents and teachers can encourage. In KIND News, the magazine of the Humane Society of the United States, the K – 6 content emphasizes the humane treatment of animals and respect for natural habitats. Best Friends Animal Society offers a lesson plan that helps children learn the similarities of human and animal needs, including food, water, shelter, protection, medical care, companionship, clothing, exercise and love. These national organizations understand that children benefit from a humane education. Learning about compassion and empathy early in life builds moral character and reduces violence. It instills in children a sense of empowerment and responsibility, and they are less likely to be excessively aggressive. Teaching children to be humane benefits our entire society.
This type of empathy can reduce euthanasia numbers by helping children understand that companion animals are not disposable. Many of the animals found in shelters today are not broken—they were simply given up. The person or family who had the animal was not committed, nor did they fully embrace the responsibility. Most in animal welfare know that it is not the puppies who are dying in the shelters but older dogs and cats who were discarded. What if we taught children from a young age why they should be responsible for and protect animals? How far would the number of unwanted animals fall if we made a concerted effort to teach children early about empathy?
Children are fast learners. Consider how small children are now taught that smoking is bad, not good. They are too young to understand more than that simple message but it sticks with them. Soon they are pointing at strangers on television who smoke and using the word “bad” to describe the characters’ actions. It is possible to use these same simple methods to expose very young children to the idea that animals deserve our compassion and respect. Teaching empathy for animals early makes a difference. Starting as babies, most children are exposed to animals through books and toys. Everyone grows up learning that “D is for dog.” As they are learning their ABC’s, we can incorporate lessons on empathy in the process. When a baby goes from seeing a picture or drawing of a dog in a book to touching a dog’s fur, it creates a connection. As they grow from babies to young adults, we can consciously build on that connection in a variety of ways.
For instance, children have a tendency to parrot or mimic the actions of their parents and teachers. It is reasonable to believe that modeling empathy toward animals in front of our children and those around us will increase the likelihood that they will adopt empathetic views toward animals. When encouraging empathy in a child, part of the process can include emphasizing the similarities between them and animals. Focusing on similarities helps the child move from a perspective centered on the self to one where he or she is able to recognize and take in an ever-widening range of perspectives. It allows a child to bridge the gap from seeing a dog as a temporary plaything to feeling compassion for another living being.
Parents and teachers can also help children make the leap from their love for a toy dog to their care and responsibility for a real dog. When a child is responsible for their dog, they have to understand the dog’s needs. They learn how to communicate with the dog and have the opportunity to see when their actions affect the dog. By cleaning up after the dog, a child learns selfless caregiving. When they see how comfortable their dog is on a clean bed or how happy they are at feeding time, children learn empathy because they know those good feelings, too. Sharing how the needs of a person are similar to an animal can encourage empathy in everyone, but especially children. Treating a dog as a family member can help increase their commitment to our animal companions and reduce the number of animals discarded at shelters. By teaching children empathy and respect for an animal, we set them up for a lifetime of compassion toward others.
Encouraging empathy through connection and community
During my childhood, the place to learn about respect for animals was in 4-H, the nonprofit youth group run by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 4-H was created with the idea that young people were more open to new ideas and would later share their experiences and successes with adults. In 4-H, kids my friends and I could learn about animal husbandry by raising a sheep or a cow. We learned respect for life and conservation, if not empathy. Our perspective was that man had a responsibility for animals. Decades later, the effects of adding respect and compassion to a child’s education can be seen in the resulting lower euthanasia rates of today.
In addition to 4-H, today’s summer camps include opportunities for kids to learn about animal care, and centers across the country have programs that bring children and animals together. The Helen Woodward Animal Center in Southern California has an Education Department, offering many onsite and offsite programs year-round that are geared toward giving children knowledge, respect and compassion for all living creatures. The San Francisco SPCA has a Humane Education department that offers programs encouraging youth to protect and help animals in their community.
These are just a few of the programs and camps allowing kids to bond with animals and learn about animal behavior. Whether it is a day program or a week away at camp, this approach can positively influence a child’s attitude toward animals by giving them multiple opportunities to interact. In a natural setting like camp, they may feel the interconnectedness between humans and animals a little differently than if they were in a city environment. They might be able to experience firsthand the value of a service animal that has been trained to be a person’s hearing or a guide dog for the blind. Being able to see up close and in person what a dog is capable of doing for a human, with love and affection as their reward, is a wonderful way to demonstrate why animals deserve our respect and protection. Getting to know animals through one-on-one interaction can develop a child’s sense of connection with nature and they may learn to see themselves as guardians of animals. By changing the way the next generation perceives animals, we can make a difference in euthanasia rates.
Another approach to saving lives while encouraging compassion is voluntarily fostering a shelter or rescue animal. Foster care is a low cost way of rehabilitating sick or behaviorally challenged animals while freeing up space in shelters. It gives volunteers a chance to help an animal, teaches children empathy for another being, and demonstrates how a compassionate response to animal overpopulation can make a difference. In addition, fostering a dog or cat not only helps that animal, it also reinforces our individual responsibility for the health of the community as a whole. Being actively involved in the community encourages young people to see their impact on others.
A compassionate response to a complex problem
People are changing how they see companion animals, and those views are having an impact on policy. More people are choosing adoption, and cities continue to shift away from euthanasia as the primary form of population control. Today, the vast majority of dogs and cats are considered family members. The amount of money we spend on their medical care, food and well-being increases every year. Since more people see their furry buddies as family, they are not willing to let them languish or die in animal shelters. We can keep influencing this positive public attitude with a focus on children and their compassion for animals.
If we increase empathy for animals, we can decrease animal abuse. By emphasizing responsibility for animals and enhancing the understanding of the human-animal bond, euthanasia rates will continue to decline. Animal centers and humane societies have done a good job already of showing children that adopting a dog is wonderful. The rest is up to us. Creating empathetic children who feel protective toward animals in the community will make a difference for this generation and the next. We only have to look at television commercials and the candy aisle at the grocery store to see that children are powerful influencers.
A no-kill country is possible, but it requires many approaches, including instructing our children in a humane education. We need a compassionate response to this complex issue if we want reform. Rather than taking an adversarial point-of-view, why not respond by positively influencing the situation? By showing our children how animals make us human, by teaching babies to see a connection between the dog in the book with the real dog, and by encouraging our kids at an early age to respect and empathize with animals, we can end animal overpopulation in this country.
This article was written by LIFE+DOG editor Sharon Castellanos.