Using Stories to Build Empathy for Animals

By Liz Walch

When I teach the lesson on dog and cat homelessness and overpopulation as part of HEART’s Taking Action For Others program, there are always two pieces of information that get a “Whoa!” from the students. The first is that there are at least 8 million homeless dogs and cats in the United States; the second is how a pair of unspayed/unneutered cats’ offspring can grow into hundreds of thousands of cats in just a few years. Despite their surprised reactions to this information, however, there is one other part of the lesson to which the students consistently react more strongly: the story about one individual dog named Forest.

During this lesson, I tell students stories about individual shelter animals and the reasons why they became homeless. One of these animals is a little spaniel named Forest who was born on a puppy mill. Later in the lesson, when the class watches a video about puppy mills, an image of Forest flashes on the screen. Each time I show this video, at least a few students call out, “Forest! That was Forest!”.

The 4th and 5th graders I work with during the Taking Action For Others program might have a hard time remembering the statistics about companion animal homelessness and overpopulation, but they remember Forest. When I review the content from this lesson one or two weeks later, some students mention Forest when they talk about the conditions in puppy mills. Even though the students were exposed to Forest’s story for just a brief moment, they clearly remember him and are impacted by his story.

In the article “What can a Farm Animal Biography Accomplish? , Ariel Tsovel writes, “stories have a triple function: illuminating particular experiences of the victim that overall representations tend to miss; creating a narrative that is easy to follow, thus suggesting a comprehensible order within an alien system; and facilitating an emotional attachment in the recipient.” Stories about animals can be used to build empathy, not only for the animals in the stories, but for all animals. Narratives help students make sense of what they are learning and give them a protagonist with whom they can connect. Stories help children understand and become engaged in the details of how any animal is living, and, as discussed in this article from the Humane Society of the United States, storytelling can be a great way to expose the personal lives of animals to children who otherwise do not interact with or share the company of animals.

There are many resources to bring storytelling about animals into your humane education work. HEART’s Humane Education Resource Guide has a lesson called “Wildlife Under Fire.” The lesson tells the stories of individual animals who are endangered species and how they are affected by habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, and poaching. Using the stories of specific animals makes complicated and widespread problems more personal by showing that real individuals are affected.

Stories of animals don’t always have to be written or oral narratives. Videos are another great way to show and tell animals’ stories. One of HEART’s educational videos features a rescued mallard duck who was injured, rehabilitated, and then released back to his natural home. I like this video because it shows humans helping this duck, but it also demonstrates that his rightful place is back in the wild where he can live out his life freely. Another video includes the story of Luca, a deaf pit bull who was rescued by a human couple. The couple then took their love for Luca and passion for animals to educate others about the plight of pit bulls.

The website The Dodo is another great resource for quick video clips and stories about real-life animals. The Dodo pulls from many different sources, including animal rescue organizations and news outlets, to publish multiple daily videos and articles. The stories can be everything from happy and inspiring, to cute and funny, to sad and poignant. Take for example the story of Berney and Veronica, a rescued wild boar and deer respectively, who became best friends at a Hawaiian animal sanctuary after hunters killed their mothers. Their story could be used for discussions about interspecies friendship, the consequences of hunting, animal rescue, and the personalities of boars and deer.

Finally, One Green Planet also has a section dedicated to animal stories that is updated daily. One example is the story of William, a young steer who was rescued by Farm Sanctuary and has learned to unlock his gate. William’s story could be used to open up discussions about animal intelligence and cow and farm animal personalities.

Whether you use stories about animals as entire lessons or just as little snippets peppered into conversation, their value goes beyond just entertainment and amusement. Stories have the power to capture kids’ imaginations and deepen their empathy, making the experiences of individual animals unforgettable. Just like Forest!

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