Most of us are familiar with the parable of the three blind men who come across an elephant, an animal that none of them had encountered before. They each touch a different part of the elephant and describe what they have come across based on their limited experience. They all have valid knowledge based on their experience, but without hearing what the other two men know, they have an incomplete view.
This story provides valuable insight into how we can approach humane education. If we only discuss an issue from one perspective, we will not understand the whole situation, and we end up addressing the problem with limited knowledge. It is important to look at topics from multiple perspectives so that we are able to see the whole picture, which better enables us to find the root cause of the problem and discover a solution that takes the needs and feelings of everyone involved into consideration.
I once went on a ride-along with a team of humane law enforcement officers. One of the calls that they were looking into was with regard to a dog who was starving. When we arrived at the house, we saw two dogs. One of the dogs looked very healthy and well-fed. In fact, he actually appeared to be a bit overweight. However, the other dog was particularly thin, and his weight was very concerning. When the humane officers spoke to the guardian of the dogs, he said that he didn’t realize one of his dogs was starving, and that he couldn’t understand how that had happened because he fed both dogs the same amount of food. With a little investigation, it became clear that the problem was that the heavier dog was eating a large portion of the thinner dog’s food. Although the guardian should have recognized there was an issue based on how thin the dog had become, he did not intend to be neglectful; there was simply a problem with how he was feeding his dogs, and he didn’t realize it.
Instead of taking the dog away from the guardian, the humane officers explained to him what they thought the problem was (in terms of his feeding the dogs together at the same time with no supervision, and the importance of observing the health and well-being of the dogs on a regular basis). The humane officers provided the guardian with some strategies for how to feed both dogs so that the one would not “steal” food from the other. They also talked to the guardian about how to know when a dog’s weight is of concern, and that if the dog becomes too overweight, or too thin, it is critical to take the dog to the veterinarian to figure out what the problem is.
They explained that they would come back soon for follow-up visits to see if there was any improvement to his dog’s health. The guardian wanted to keep his dogs, and with this informational guidance, it appeared that he would change his behavior. The humane officers took both the health and well-being of the dog, as well as the feelings and lack of awareness of the guardian, into consideration.
Similarly, in humane education, when we tackle an issue with students, it is important that we ask them to look at a situation from the perspectives of multiple people and animals, as well as the health of our natural world. We encourage youth to create win-win solutions when possible by providing them with different scenarios. We challenge them to figure out what the end result might be if it ended in a win/lose, lose/win, lose/lose, or win/win, and then they compare and contrast these options.
One such scenario that we introduce to our students is about elephants and farmers in Tanzania. As the population in a particular community in Tanzania grew, the people expanded the area of where they lived and farmed. Some families ended up living closer to the elephants than anyone ever had before. The situation was becoming extremely dangerous because the elephants could destroy the people’s homes, their farms (which were their livelihoods), and even kill them, just from their sheer size. If nothing was done to resolve the problem, people definitely would have suffered. Some people thought the only solution was to kill the elephants, which would not only have devasted the elephant population, but would be harmful to the ecosystem as well. After much thought and deliberation, the government partnered with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and they were able to safely transport the entire herd of elephants to a nearby refuge where all the elephants’ needs would still be met, but they were far enough away from people that they were no longer a threat to them.
For some situations, it is easier to find a win-win solution than others, and I in no way intend to minimize the complexity of issues. There are times where the needs and interest of one may appear to far outweigh the needs and interest of another, but even if that is the case, it is essential that we take the time to step back and look at a problem from everyone’s point of view before coming to that conclusion.
For example, when we teach students about animals used in entertainment, we ask students to compare the lives of the animals in captivity to how those animals would live in their natural habitats. We also ask them to think about why animals are used for entertainment, such as creating jobs for people and providing people of all ages an opportunity to see wild animals up close, who they may not have been able to see otherwise. In my experience, when students take the whole situation into consideration, the majority decide that they do not think animals should be used in entertainment because they think the interests of the animals far outweigh the interests of the people who want to see them perform. They also often argue that many people in this industry could keep their jobs by providing similarly entertaining experiences, without the use of the animals.
Imagine if we could encourage an entire generation of youth to look at every issue from a holistic perspective, taking the needs and well-being of others into consideration. It would transform the way we make decisions, our attitudes toward others, and our behaviors, and in so doing, we can create a more compassionate, equitable, and sustainable world for all.