On Animal Welfare Education

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

Last November, I read about New Zealand children being taught to trap and kill rats. The story has nagged me ever since.

The child killers were ostensibly working towards the laudable goal of protecting native fauna.

What I have a hard time with is the gleeful tone of the kids, and adults, involved (quoted by McClure, 2022):

  • “My trap, basically the whole thing’s a layer of blood,” grins one enthusiastic vermin-slayer.”
  • “Even the five-year-olds are really into the idea. They know the end goal: they want kiwis back in their back yards,” said Emma Jenkinson, chair of the school’s board of trustees, who helped organise the competition.”

Do the five-year-olds really want kiwis back in their yards? Or are they learning a dangerous lesson?

Teaching cruelty

Research beginning in the 1960s has found consistent strong links between childhood animal cruelty and adult interpersonal violence (Holoyda & Newman, 2016; Glayzer, et al., 2002).

This is so well-established, Holoyda and Newman (2016) note, that: “Cruelty to animals entered the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the revised third edition (American Psychiatric Association, 1987) as a criterion for conduct disorder, the childhood precursor to antisocial personality disorder.”

But it’s rats, you may say. Vermin.

Rats — like it or not — are living creatures capable of feeling pain.

In April, 2023 New Zealand was prepared to offer children under 14 cash prizes for killing ‘feral’ cats. Fortunately there was enough public outcry to force the organizers to rescind the reward.

My point is, the category of vermin is dangerously prone to expansion.

It is a hallmark of genocide that perpetrators classify the objects of their violence as pestilential, invasive, repulsive.

“In the apocalyptic Nazi vision, these putative enemies of civilization [Jews] were represented as parasitic organisms — as leeches, lice, bacteria, or vectors of contagion,” writes David Livingston Smith, author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others. He also notes that during the genocide in Rawanda Hutus referred to their Tutsi victims as “cockroaches.”

To be clear, I am NOT equating killing rats or cats with killing humans. That would be absurd and offensive.

What I AM arguing is that humans can be conditioned to treat other living creatures with regard, or the opposite, and that training children to delight in the death and suffering of any living being paves the way for insensitivity to other living beings.

If we teach kids it’s okay to torment and kill one animal, what’s to stop the category of vermin expanding? Again, numerous studies across more than half a century have found strong correlations between childhood animal cruelty and adult violence.

Taking responsibility

Another problematic fact of the New Zealand slaughter campaigns (at least as reported) is the lack of acknowledgement of how the problem started.

Neither cats nor rats are native to New Zealand, and they didn’t swim there. Humans brought rats to the islands (Innes, et al., 1995), and doubtless brought cats to kill the rats, in nursery rhyme fashion.

Photo by Jinen Shah on Unsplash

If anyone is to blame for endangering native fauna, it is the colonizers and invaders who arrived with these animals. It may be necessary and appropriate to take protective measures now, but any engagement children have with the issue should be framed in terms of human responsibility for the initial problem.

This means that adults need to deal with the situation instead of outsourcing killing to children. If culling seems the only way to protect endangered native species it should be done as humanely as possible by trained adult professionals.

Animal welfare education

Schools can, and should, educate children about animal welfare. At this point in human history, it is less about kindness than about a last-gasp chance to save ourselves from self-inflicted environmental meltdown.

We cannot slow the headlong rush to planet-scale destruction by continuing with the same mindset that got us into it — the mindset that says: when an animal (or plant, or person) inconveniences us, let’s call them a pest and kill them.

Educating children to treat other living beings and ecosystems with respect and consideration is a step towards self-preservation, in the immediate and (if we’re lucky) long term.

Immediate impacts include reducing interpersonal violence. Scheib, Roeper and Hametter (2010) found that children who taught about animal welfare, “acquire social competences such as empathy, consideration, and responsibilities. Thus, Animal Welfare Education plays an important role in preventing violence in schools.”

Tarazona, Ceballos and Broom (2020) argue for far-reaching benefits to animal welfare education, writing: “The basic concepts of biology, welfare, and health are the same for humans and all other animals. Human actions have wide consequences and we need to change the way we interact with other living beings. … Animal welfare should always be considered in our relationships with animals, not only for direct impacts, e.g., manipulations, but also for indirect effects, e.g., on the environment, disease spread, natural resource availability, culture, and society.”

Interdisciplinary connections

To avoid this outcome, teachers in all disciplines need to participate.

As long as environmental or animal-related topics are confined to science classes, they will remain easy for students to compartmentalize. And a thing that can be compartmentalized can be ignored most of the time.

What can I do, as an English teacher?

For starters, I can highlight relevant themes in texts. One of my classes just finished reading Doris Lessing’s striking debut novel The Grass is Singing, a book in which the physical environment plays an outsized role in the social, emotional and psychological environment. It explicitly deals with themes like land exploitation, too, and highlighting them initiated a thoughtful discussion.

I also love to draw from authors like Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin and Margaret Mead.

History class is another fantastic place to educate students about the environment. We should consider and highlight the impact of social change, war, technology, etc. on animals and the wider environment.

Math teachers can use problems that engage with the natural world, ranging from population expansion to epidemiology.

Children who don’t understand that all life is fundamentally connected will grow into adults who won’t see how their actions and choices affect their environment. They will be, in a profound sense, irresponsible. And it will be our fault for not having taught them better.

What is your view on animal welfare education? Have could it best be integrated into curricula? Share your thoughts in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke