Where Did Our Compassion Go? A Discussion on the Loss of the Human-Animal Bond

The popularity of humane education is on the rise. Throughout the country more and more elementary, middle and high schools are implementing compassion, empathy and social responsibility into their curriculums. Another rapidly growing venue for humane education is at the post-secondary level. The past few decades have seen a number of graduate and undergraduate programs focus on the core theories behind humane education.

I was lucky enough to take part in one such example of this expanding interest at the university level. I was invited to speak about some of what HEART does at “Where Did Our Compassion Go? Children, Adults and the Loss of the Human-Animal Bond”, an exciting event that took place at  the City College of New York. This discussion, moderated by Daisy Dominguez, featured an incredibly diverse panel of compassionate educators, professionals and trailblazers who spoke about their experiences and work in the field of compassion, empathy and the evolving human-animal relationship.

The keynote speaker for the evening was City College of New York’s own Professor of Psychology Bill Crain. Crain spoke, in part, about his new book The Emotional Lives of Animals and Children: Insights from a Farm Sanctuary.  The farm sanctuary the book refers to is Professor Crain’s own. In 2008, with his wife Ellen, Professor Crain opened Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag, New York. The sanctuary is home to over seventy farm animals rescued from abusive situations and eventual slaughter. The sanctuary helped Professor Crain gain a deeper understanding of the emotional lives of farm animals and ultimately led to the creation of his book.

The book itself is divided into two parts. The first discusses various emotional behaviors that both animals and children share. The second part covers broader social themes of western culture’s disparagement of animals. Professor Crain observes that this societal view on animals is learned and children do not set themselves apart from nature and animals, and he hopes that as a society we can move back towards our natural connections with animals. A message that all humane educators can agree on.

Additional speakers included other City College of New York professors Jennifer Morton, who spoke about different philosophical approaches to human-animal relations and the challenges of such research and academic work, and Nancy M. Cardwell, who discussed the need for universal compassion and how compassion for animals is connected to the compassion we feel for other humans, including ourselves. These ideas remind me of my work here with HEART, and how often we have to remind students that it is not only the outside world they should show compassion towards, but also themselves.

Brian Shapiro, New York State Director of the Humane Society of the United States, talked about the link between animal cruelty and human violence. Using both startling statistics and a number of personal stories, he made it clear that violence against animals is an early indication that immediate intervention needs to be done, so that a violent perpetrator doesn’t escalate and hurt others, including humans.

Karen Davis, President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns gave an impassioned talk on the nature of humans, and how they interact with the outside world, a world that is filled with other people and  animals, all of whom need love and compassion.

With all of these wonderful speakers talking about the big ideas such as respect, compassion, and empathy, I shared with the audience some of the examples of how these feelings can be fostered through humane education. Using HEART’s farm animal curriculum as an example, I spoke to the audience about how humane education fosters reverence, respect, compassion and critical thinking. I started the presentation with an observation, that most children have an inherent love of animals and if that love is acknowledged and nurtured it can be sustained into adulthood.

As a humane educator I witness firsthand as children’s faces light up when they find out that they will be learning, in part, about animals. Additionally, children, especially young children, are always the most horrified, and moved to action when they learn about the injustices that animals around the world face. Society has yet to help them form excuses and come up with false rationales as to why animals “must” be treated so terribly. Children’s inherent passion and compassion shine through and they call out injustice for what it is and seek a better life for all animals.

This idea is certainly true when teaching about farm animals. Children have almost immediate reverence for the different farm animals. Learning that chickens cluck to their babies while still in the egg, that pigs love to cuddle with other pigs and cows will literally jump for joy help kids make that instant connection that farm animals are like us, deserving of love and compassion.

Though the event focused on the loss of people’s compassion from childhood into adulthood, it was clear that evening that there are many people in this world with compassion to spare. There is still much to be hopeful about, as there are brilliant and passionate educators in our world today dedicating themselves to making the world a better place one child at a time.

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