Animal-Assisted Interventions and Humane Education: Opportunities for a More Targeted Focus

It has been taken for granted in the humane movement for a century and a half that children who are taught to respect animals will develop empathy, compassion, and grow up to be kinder to their fellow human animals (Arkow, 1990). It is widely accepted as axiomatic in the field of animal-assisted therapy and activities (AAT/AAA) that there is an “undeniable bond” between children and animals (Phillips and McQuarrie, 2009).

As these two disciplines have evolved, the worlds of AAT/AAA and humane education have occasionally intersected, with innovative practitioners continually discovering new applications to introduce the soothing powers of animals to children and youth. Demographic and market research (American Veterinary Medical Association, 2007) depicting households with children as overwhelmingly having pets, plus psychological research addressing the role of pets in healthy and abnormal child and adolescent development (Ascione, 2005; Kruger et al., 2004; Melson, 2001), fuel efforts to bring humane education and animal-assisted interventions (AAI) to young audiences.

The use of AAIs with at-risk, abused, and special-needs youth continues to proliferate and mature (DeGrave, 1999; Fine, 2006; Rathmann, 1999; Ross, 1999). A new generation of programs using animals to help students improve their reading skills and overcome behavioral disorders that impact their academic learning has emerged. As interest in AAT/AAA has grown, children and adolescents are finding increasing opportunities to experience beneficial animal contact.

The American Humane Association has developed the PAWS® program—Pets And Women’s Shelters—to enable battered women and their children to keep their pets with them (American Humane Association, 2009b), and the TASK® program—Therapy Animals Supporting Kids—in which therapy animals in children’s advocacy centers and courtrooms facilitate police investigations, forensic examinations, and courtroom testimony for sexually abused children (Phillips and McQuarrie, 2009).

Families in Illinois, California and Pennsylvania have sued local school districts to allow their children’s autism service dogs to accompany them to class and serve as calming influences, familiar links in new circumstances, and safety barriers to keep the children from running off (Associated Press, 2009).

At Susquehanna and Bucknell Universities and Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, professors and school counselors bring their own pets to “Dog Days” for an hour of social interaction to help incoming freshmen overcome homesickness. “Students can’t pick up their phones and call Sparky. Or text him. Or e-mail him,” wrote a newspaper reporter. Added Susquehanna’s associate dean of students and director of the counseling center: “The fact is that students miss their pets, sometimes more than they miss their families” (Snyder, 2009).

Programs like these are breathing new life into opportunities for animal-assisted humane education. Whereas traditional humane education emphasizes presentations to individual classrooms or entire school audiences to build community awareness of humane causes, a more strategic approach today specifically targets youth with special needs or who are at risk of violence, abuse, or committing antisocial behavior. These new approaches integrate AAT/AAA, animal behaviorism, and knowledge of The Link® between animal abuse and human violence into more focused animal-assisted educational interventions that may prove more effective, directly reaching those who are most at risk of being victims, or perpetrators, of violence.

22.2 The roots of humane education

Many philosophers and writers, including Ovid, St. Thomas Aquinas, Montaigne, John Locke, William Hogarth, Immanuel Kant, and Margaret Mead, have argued that harming animals is the first step down a slippery slope that desensitizes individuals against interpersonal violence. These writers have extolled the virtues of being kind to animals not just in consideration for animals’ well-being, but out of concern for what animal maltreatment says about the human condition (ten Bensel, 1984; Wynne-Tyson, 1990).

Locke (1705), in particular, gave impetus to a robust philosophical construct promoting childhood kindness to animals as having significant implications on positive character development. The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes—one of the first full-length children’s books in the English language—written by an anonymous author in 1765, accentuated this concept as heroine Margery Meanwell helps animals who have been mistreated. In what may be one of the earliest usages of the term “animal rights,” Herman Daggett (1792) described an unfettered belief in what today would be called humane education to correct antisocial behavior:

Only let a person be taught, from his earliest years, that it is criminal to torment, and unnecessarily to destroy, these innocent animals, and he will feel a guilty conscience, in consequence of any injury which he shall do to them, in this way, no less really than if the injury were offered to human beings. The force of education, and of wrong habits, in setting aside natural principles, is amazing, and almost incredible.

However, the use of the word “humane” in conjunction with animal well-being took considerable time to develop. While the word, derived from the Latin humanus and the French humaine, originated as a common earlier spelling of “human” (and even today one occasionally finds interchangeable usage of “inhuman” and “inhumane”), circa 1500 “humane” began to describe gentle, kind, courteous, friendly behavior as befits a human being, with no connotation of protecting animals. In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, written in 1608, starving plebeians say that if patricians gave them surplus food “we might guess they relieved us humanely” (I,i), and a senator recommends bringing Coriolanus to the market place for a public airing of all their grievances, rather than executing him, because “it is the humane way: the other course will prove too bloody” (III,i).

After 1700, the word came to describe sympathy with and consideration for the needs and distresses of others (Simpson and Weiner, 1989). Samuel Johnson’s seminal A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) makes no association of the word with kindness to animals, rather defining humane as “kind, civil, benevolent, and good-natured.”

The interpretation of “humane” as benevolence took on an entirely new human welfare meaning with the formation in 1774 of the Royal Humane Society in London for the recovery of persons who had apparently drowned. The London organization claimed in its first decade to have “restored to their friends and country” 790 out of 1,300 persons apparently dead from drowning (Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1786). This type of “humane society,” which actually originated in the Netherlands in 1767, was soon replicated with similar lifesaving services in Paris, Venice, Hamburg, Milan, and eventually Boston in 1786.

This venerable organization, the third oldest charitable society in Massachusetts, was founded “for the recovery of persons who meet with such accidents as to produce in them the appearance of death, and for promoting the cause of humanity, by pursuing such means, from time to time, as shall have for their object the preservation of human life and the alleviation of its miseries” (Humane Society of Massachusetts, 1845). John Lathrop (1787) praised the nascent Humane Society of Massachusetts as being the first benevolent institution to address “the cries of the needy,” “the fight of wretchedness,” and “the relief to prevent misery” among those suffering from apparent death.

Early American humane societies in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere erected rescue sheds and boathouses along the Atlantic seaboard and published guidelines for the “reanimation” and resuscitation of persons who appeared to have died from drowning, heat prostration, hypothermia, lightning strikes, and other causes (Humane Society of Philadelphia, 1788). Other American humane societies fought for prison reform and the closing of “petty taverns and grog-shops” which, while necessary for the weary traveler, were seen as “the nurseries of intemperance, disorder and profligacy” among the laboring poor of New York City (Humane Society of the City of New York, 1810).

Other early American usages of “humane” were humanitarian in scope but with no reference to kindness toward animals. The term is commonly found in early calls for penal reform, such as advanced by William Penn who, in 1681, created “a more humane house of correction based on labor,” and by Benjamin Franklin who in 1790 advocated for “humane treatment of inmates” in the Walnut Street Jail by using solitary cells (Dickinson, 2008). “Humane Fire Companies” were established in Philadelphia, Easton and Norristown, PA, and Bordentown, NJ, as early as 1797 (Underwood, n.d.; Burlington County Firemen’s Association, 1922).

The first attempt to start a federated fundraising drive was undertaken in Philadelphia in 1829 by one Matthew Carey, who entreated 97 “citizens of the first respectability” to sign an appeal entitled, “Address to the Liberal and Humane” (Cutlip, 1990). In an 1829 letter directing the infamous “Trail of Tears” forced relocation of five American Indian tribes from Mississippi and Alabama, President Andrew Jackson told Native American leaders that the relocation plan was the only way by which “they can expect to preserve their own laws, & be benefitted [sic] by the care and humane attention of the United States” (Colimore, 2009). An 1840 morality tale describes how a couple in 1745 “humanely” took it upon themselves to care for the three children of neighbors who were imprisoned and executed during Scottish insurrections (Mrs. Blackford, 1840). Other uses of “humane” include the description of weapons or implements which inflict less pain than others of their kind, and the branches of study or literature which tend to refine.

At some unknown point, “humane” came to include showing compassion and tenderness towards “the lower animals” (Simpson and Weiner, 1989). An unnamed “humane society” was cited by Thoreau in Walden (1854) as being the greatest friend of hunted animals (p. 211). “No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does,” Thoreau wrote (p. 212), although elsewhere he apotheosized Nature when the winds sigh “humanely” (p. 138) and described philanthropy as a “humane” pursuit (p. 73). In Cape Cod (1865), he described the “Charity or Humane Houses” erected on the beaches of Barnstable County where shipwrecked seamen may look for shelter; in mentioning an incident where a little boy had poached 80 swallows’ eggs from their nests, Thoreau wrote, “Tell it not to the Humane Society.” How such a human-centric organization with a mission of reanimating drowning victims came to adopt animal protection as a cause remains unclear.

The earliest usage of “humane” in an extant animal welfare organization appears in the first annual report of the Pennsylvania SPCA (1869), in which a fundraising appeal is made to the “humane” citizens of Philadelphia for financial and membership assistance. The Oregon Humane Society was founded in 1868, and the Missouri Humane Society in 1870, but it is unknown whether these were the original names for these organizations or subsequent name changes.

About this time, the nascent animal protection movement in the USA began to identify “humane education” as the intervention of choice for guiding wayward youths into a righteous path in which animals were well regarded, respected and cared for—not just for the animals’ welfare, but to improve human behavior. George Angell, founder of the Massachusetts SPCA, argued that although animal abuse should be a concern in its own right, society should heed animal abuse as an omen of violence among people (cited in Ascione, 2005). Three of the founders of the early animal welfare movement—Angell in Boston, Henry Bergh in New York, and Caroline Earle White in Philadelphia—outspokenly believed that the focal job of an authentic humane society should be moral education and public advocacy rather than rescuing and sheltering animals (Animal People, 2009).

Angell stressed humane education’s utility for ensuring public order, suppressing anarchy and radicalism, smoothing relations between the classes, and reducing crime: it would be a valuable means for socializing the young (especially of the lower socioeconomic classes) and the solution to social unrest and revolutionary politics. This promotion of humane education as an antidote for depraved character and a panacea for societal ills aligned the fledgling animal protection movement with other social reform and justice movements concerned with cruelty, violence and the social order (Arkow, 1992; Unti and DeRosa, 2003). Child welfare and animal welfare work often overlapped: pioneering and muckraking social reformer Jacob Riis (1892) described the American Humane Association as protecting “the odd link that bound the dumb brute with the helpless child in a common bond of humane sympathy” (p. 150). By 1922, 307 of the 539 animal protection organizational members of the American Humane Association devoted their work to the protection of abused children as part of the same humanitarian continuum of care (Shultz, 1924).

Humane education was seen as a means of insulating youth, and boys in particular, against tyrannical tendencies that might undermine civic life were such violent natures left unchecked. Animals were nicely suited for instruction and became important vehicles for inculcating standards of gentility including self-discipline, Christian sentiment, empathy, and moral sensitivity. Societal class stratification was an underpinning of humane education as well, as advocates saw the teaching of “kindness to animals” as a way to separate refined, urbane, middle- and upper-class youth from the coarser, rustic behaviors of lower classes and immigrants who were considered the sources of much brutality (Ritvo, 1987; Saunders, 1895; Unti and DeRosa, 2003).

Throughout the Victorian era, moralistic tracts filled with lofty sentiments about animal cruelty being a precursor to antisocial behaviors were mainstays of childhood education:

A worm, a fly, and all things that have life, can feel pain: if we learn to be cruel while boys, we shall not grow up to be good men.

(Cobb, 1832)

One who is cruel to a cat or a dog, a bird or a fish, will be cruel to his fellow-man, and such cruelty dulls all those finer feelings which make a true gentleman or lady.

(Johnson, 1900)

The humane education movement is a broad one, reaching from humane treatment of animals on the one hand to peace with all nations on the other…It implies character building. Society first said that needless suffering should be prevented; society now says that children must not be permitted to cause pain because of the effect on the children themselves.

(Eddy, 1899)

The Latham Foundation, founded in 1918 for the promotion of humane education, still exemplifies this paradigm. A poster from the 1930s, widely used today, depicts two children with a puppy approaching a set of steps leading to “world friendship.” The first step up this hill is “kindness to animals,” which will subsequently take the voyagers to kindness to each other, other people, our country, other nations, and the world (Forman, 2007).

A century later, advocates still promote humane education as a virtue that can solve all societal ills and achieve global peace. Weil (2004), for example, hyperbolically described humane education as offering a solution to war, bigotry, cruelty, environmental disaster, terrorism, species extinction, human oppression, ecological degradation, racism, sexism, homophobia and global warming. Antoncic (2003) declared, “Humane education can offer society hope for an active, independent, self-thinking future citizenry.”

It is significant to note that from its inception, the philosophical and moral underpinnings for humane education are based as much upon what cruelty to animals says about the human condition as upon the adverse impact upon the animals themselves. The premise that kindness to animals has a benefit to human beings and the psychological and social development of children is a natural opportunity for AAIs to be added to more traditional humane education offerings.

22.3 The role of animals in the lives of children

The American Veterinary Medical Association (2007) estimated that pets are present in 67.7% of US households with children under the age of six, and in 74.6% of households with children aged six or over; 49.7% of pet owners consider their pets to be family members and 48.2% consider them to be companions. Foer (2006) reported that significant numbers of children routinely include pets in lists of the most important individuals in their lives and spontaneously mention their pets when asked to identify whom they turn to when feeling sad, angry, happy, or wanting to share a secret.

Even if families do not have pets, children are surrounded by animal images from an early age, in such forms as stuffed toys, mobiles above their cribs, pictures in their books, characters in their TV cartoons, and imprints on their clothing. Most children learn their numbers by counting animals and learn to read from picture books filled with animals (Doris Day Animal Foundation, 2005).

Melson (2001) observed that dog, cat, duck, horse, bear and bird are among the first 50 words that most American toddlers say, and that more children say these words than any other words except mama and daddy or their equivalents (p. 84). Fairytales have more animals in them than fairies (p. 139). Pets are more likely to be a part of children’s growing up than are siblings or fathers (p. 34). And 80 to 90% of American children first confront the loss of a loved one when a pet dies, disappears or is abandoned (p. 62). But traditional education renders animals as objects to be analyzed apart from the texture of daily experience (p. 74), with few studies on the impact of classroom animals on young children (p. 75). School educators often overlook opportunities for learning presented by the sheer ubiquity of pets in the lives of children: “The average school child seems to know more about dinosaurs and fictitious creatures than those with which it may interact on a daily basis” (Mills and De Keuster, 2009).

When attachments between children and animals are nurtured, many positive benefits ensue. However, when the bond between children and animals is broken by real or threatened violence or neglect in the family, children pay a high price, often with short- and long-term consequences. These children are at higher risk of developing behavioral problems, failing academically, and engaging in delinquent and criminal behavior, and are more vulnerable to physical and psychological problems. Strong consensus now exists among researchers and policy makers that animal abuse, child maltreatment, domestic violence, and elder abuse are potentially co-occurring elements of family violence. Paying attention to the situation of animals in families may provide early opportunities to redirect the trajectory of a child’s antisocial development into more positive directions (Arkow, 2003, 1996; Ascione and Arkow, 1999; Randour and Davidson, 2008).

It is not the mere presence of animals in a family, but rather the degree of the bond or attachment to those animals that may encourage a child’s positive development (Poresky, 1990). A child’s attachment to pets has the potential to teach empathy and compassion, and animals can bring a withdrawn, abused or traumatized child out of his or her shell. The non-judgmental comfort offered by a pet can help a child heal (Phillips and McQuarrie, 2009). A wide range of institutional settings for children with special needs—children’s advocacy centers, juvenile and adolescent mental health and correctional institutions, children’s hospitals, child protection agencies, schools for emotionally disturbed youth, private consulting rooms and many others—incorporate AAIs. Schools where humane education is offered may be added to this institutional list.

Childhood cruelty to animals is one of the earliest reported symptoms of conduct disorder, manifesting at 6.75 years of age (Frick et al., 1993). Children who are cruel to animals exhibit more severe conduct disorder problems than other children (Luk et al., 1999). Findings such as these provide empirical credence to the largely anecdotal data that have directed humane education activities for decades, and lend support to more strategic approaches in which humane education is coordinated with AAIs targeted to reach at-risk, delinquent, or academically challenged youth.

22.4 AAIs with youth

Research detailing the benefits of AAIs with children who have been abused, or who are at risk of behavioral or antisocial disorders, though relatively sparse and recent (Phillips and McQuarrie, 2009), appears emotionally intuitive and convincing. Melson and Fogel (1996) reported that after only five minutes of contact with an unfamiliar dog, 76% of children believed that the dog knew how they felt and 84% indicated they would confide secrets to a dog. The presence of animals in a child’s therapeutic environment makes the therapy seem friendlier and less threatening, helps build rapport with children, expedites a sense of trust, and has a calming effect (Fine, 2006; Nagengast et al., 1997). Parish-Plass (2008) reported two significant variables that differentiated those who survived childhood abuse as well-adjusted adults from those who did not: the presence of an adult who inspired confidence in them and encouraged them, and responsibility for caring for a younger sibling or pet.

Emotional support—the sense of being able to turn to others for comfort in times of stress and the feeling of being cared for by others—may be enhanced by even relatively brief interactions with animals (Kruger et al., 2004). Dimensions of emotional support cited in AAIs with abused or at-risk children include animals’ seeming abilities to: build rapport with the adult professional; promote engagement with the child; reduce anxiety and stress; provide nonjudgmental acceptance and attention; provide a sense of safety, friendliness and normalcy; allow children to role play, project, transfer, and re-enact experiences; improve children’s self-esteem; allow children to practice social and communicative skills; reduce feelings of social alienation; learn about appropriate and inappropriate touching; and improve morale (Phillips and McQuarrie, 2009). While this phenomenon is more commonly utilized in therapeutic settings, it has applications as well in humane educational contexts.

22.5 Making humane education more relevant

Although history offers a long, irrepressible, and largely unproven faith in the power of humane education to effect positive changes in children’s character (Arkow, 2006), and researchers (Bjerke and Ostdahl, 2004; Kellert, 1989) have correlated higher levels of education with support for moralistic, humanistic and ecologistic attitudes consistent with animal rights, animal welfare and environmental causes, humane education has not been institutionalized in public education systems. Despite more than 140 years of classroom programming, support from national parent/teacher organizations (Arkow, 1990; Wishnik, 2003), and at least 12 states mandating its inclusion in school curricula (American Humane Association, 2008; Antoncic, 2003), humane education remains a largely marginalized activity.

Humane educators often have difficulty in gaining access to schools where teachers resist adding instruction to already crowded curricula and state mandates. Guides for educators about how to nurture humaneness in a school environment describe it as reflecting enlightenment, compassion, or self-actualization, but fail to mention kindness to animals (Scobey and Graham, 1970). Meanwhile, instructional programs of “values education” and “character education” are flourishing with federal dollars flowing to school districts across the USA.

Traditional humane education is often conducted as a shelter tour or classroom presentation covering such topics as responsible pet care, pet overpopulation, safe interactions with animals, and ethical human/animal concerns. Although developing a sense of empathy for animals is assumed to be a bridge to caring about human beings and make children more resilient, more socially competent, more popular with their peers, and less aggressive (Doris Day Animal Foundation, 2005), this premise and the effectiveness of humane education have been difficult to assess (Ascione, 2005; O’Brien, n.d.). With a 45-minute presentation representing only 4/10,000ths of 1% of classroom contact exposure over a student’s 12-year school career (Arkow, 1990), the long-term impact of such a program would appear to be minimal, even more so when the influence of students’ peers, family and the media are factored in. In communities marked by high incidence of gang-, gun- and drug-related crime, humane educators may particularly wonder how they can go into a classroom and teach children to be kind to animals when these students are afraid to go to school because of drive-by shootings (Arkow, 2006). Animal welfare organizations that should consider the educational imperative to be mission-critical often fail to support it with adequate financial and human resources (Senechalle and Dunn, 2004) and even the venerable ASPCA in 2009 discontinued classroom and teacher training presentations.

Still, professional and volunteer humane educators soldier on, nobly attempting to teach children a sense of responsibility, respect and compassion for animals and their needs, in hopes of developing good character, self-awareness, and greater respect for all living things (Yao, 2003).

Perhaps greater respect for, and inclusion of, humane education in school curricula can be obtained by emphasizing the positive, therapeutic benefits of animals and improved social capital attendant with responsible pet husbandry. Children who have pets have greater self-concept and self-esteem, are better integrated socially, have wider social networks, and are more popular with their classmates (Endenburg and Baarda, 1995). High school students who have pets perform better on college entrance examinations and have higher grade point averages (American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 1999). Because attachment to pets is a gender-neutral expression of caring, pets may be especially important for the development of empathy among young boys (Melson, 1988). The presence of pets can counteract the erosion of what Putnam (1996, 2000) called “social capital” and enhance community networks, norms and trust. Pets were reported to facilitate civic engagement, communications, and the social connectivity that is vital for healthy communities (Wood et al., 2005).

22.6 Overcoming challenges to traditional humane education: “new wine in an old bottle”

In an earlier version of this chapter (Arkow, 2006), I identified issues that have kept traditional humane education marginalized and undercapitalized as compared with more established character initiatives:

  • Inadequate definitions of “humane education” and “cruelty to animals”

  • Marginalization of animal cruelty vis-à-vis crimes against human members of society

  • Insufficient knowledge of the etiology of acts of violence against animals

  • Inadequate prioritization within the animal welfare and philanthropic sectors

  • Insufficient statutory authority mandating the inclusion of animal welfare curricula

  • Lack of processes to evaluate whether such programming results in behavioral changes and whether such messaging carries into adulthood

  • Lack of cultural diversity within humane organizations, making it difficult to implement culturally relevant programming

  • Competition from more established special interest groups seeking to have their curricula included

  • Absence of systemic training, professional development, and certification for humane educators

  • Lack of public and parental support

  • Resistance from teachers opposed to additional instructional mandates

  • Bureaucratic stasis

  • Incomplete understanding of how children react to the messaging and what meets their needs.

In that chapter, I referred to efforts to modernize humane education as “old wine in a new bottle,” a repackaging of age-old concepts into more contemporary language acceptable to educators. The field of education is not unique in marginalizing, or even trivializing, animal welfare issues. Professionals in such fields as law enforcement, prosecution, social services and government frequently ask, “Why should I focus on animal problems when there are so many more pressing human welfare concerns?”

In reality, animal welfare issues are human welfare concerns as well. American animal protection laws are the oldest in the world, dating to 1641, historically enacted because of the impact that animal maltreatment is perceived to have on the human condition (Animal Welfare Institute, 1990; Frasch et al., 1999; Lacroix, 1999). This attitude was exemplified in 2009 by the US Solicitor General’s Office in a brief to the US Supreme Court arguing that commercial trafficking of videotapes of dogfights is illegal and not protected by the First Amendment’s rights of free speech. “Illegal acts of animal cruelty result in great suffering to defenseless animals, as well as injuries to human beings, and the erosion of important public mores,” the brief stated (Kagan, 2009).

Given growing recognition that addressing humane causes has benefits for humans, that animal abuse is linked to other forms of human violence, that 98% of Americans consider pets as “members of the family” or “companions” (American Veterinary Medical Association, 2007), and that AAIs can be beneficial for youth, perhaps a new description is indicated. Perhaps the integration of animal-assisted education into traditional humane education is more appropriately “new wine in an old bottle.”

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Feb 16, 2017 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on Animal-Assisted Interventions and Humane Education: Opportunities for a More Targeted Focus
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