Editorial: Opportunities for humane education
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1995:
News clips from readers provide our best index of public concern about current
events. Our regular clippers notice anything about animals, no matter how small and
buried, but when clips flood our desk from folks who don’t even read ANIMAL PEOPLE,
yet find out about us in their desperation to address an outrage, we know a groundswell of
concern can be channeled into positive action.
Four events in particular have lately brought tidal waves of clips, faxes, e-mail,
and telephone calls. One was the torture-killing of Duke the Dalmatian in Bucks County,
Pennsylvania, by three Beavis-and-Butthead imitators. The second was the death of a pig
at a county fair in Tyler, Texas, when an adolescent pushed a hose down the animal’s
throat and turned on the water, hoping to achieve last-minute weight gain sufficient to win a
prize. The third case was the September 14 torture-killing of a quarterhorse named Mr.
Wilson Boy in a pasture near Silsbee, Texas. Ten boys and a girl, ages 8 to 14, chased the
horse into barbed wire, beat him to death, and bragged about it.
The fourth case hit the news on October 12, nine days after science teacher
Mickey Duncan of Braggs, Oklahoma, accepted a male barn cat from the daughter of a
school board member, and reportedly attempted “a crude razor blade operation” to expose
the cat’s kidneys. The cat apparently came out of makeshift anesthesia during the second of
two classes that saw the exercise, and was sewed back up and rescued by students while
Duncan was out of the room. (Addresses for letters of protest appear on page 5.)
Not a day goes by that we don’t hear of many comparable atrocities, some on a
mind-bogglingly grand scale, involving human victims as well as animals.
But most don’t bring comparable response:
“On the afternoon of July 11,” Stephen Kinzer reported in the October 4 edition of
The New York Times, “Bosnian Serb commander General Ratko Mladic summoned the
Dutch peacekeeping unit commander and several of his officers to a hotel room where a live
pig was tied up. As they watched, a Bosnian Serb soldier slit the pig’s throat. Mladic told
them that was how he would treat people like those protected by the Dutch peacekeepers,”
and that’s exactly how his troops did treat them, too, over the next three months, while the
peacekeepers and the rest of the world did nothing.
Not one U.S. newspaper published the pig-killing story when it happened, so far
as we can tell––and not one person sent in Kinzer’s article.
The distance between here and there, and the seeming hopelessness of trying to
stop war and ethnic hatred in eastern Europe may account for the lack of clips of Kinzer’s
article in our mailbox, as well as for the numbness of most Americans toward the ongoing
Bosnian slaughter. The cases in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Oklahoma, by contrast,
seemed close at hand and manageable. Average citizens could do something, if only write
letters of protest, and did. Feeling empowered in turn created further empowerment.
Anne Irwin of the Bucks County SPCA, for instance, recalls that before the Duke
case, the courts in her region had apparently never jailed an animal abuser, no matter what
the offense. Now several more Bucks County animal abusers have drawn jail time;
Pennsylvania has a new felony penalty for extreme and egregious cruelty; and the role of
volunteer court-watchers in securing the Duke case conviction and sentencing has inspired
the formation of court-watching groups to monitor animal-related cases in many other
states. Many successful prosecutions and meaningful sentences have resulted, in cases that
formerly would have been dropped or plea-bargained to insignificance.
Similarly, Fred Allison and Bernie Rollin, profiled in our July/August edition,
used public outrage over the Tyler pig case, along with cases involving the use of illegal
drugs to enhance livestock appearance, to promulgate a uniform code of ethics for livestock
competitions. Livestock show promoters realized when even Ann Landers gave them hell
that Allison and Rollin offered them their best chance to “wake up and smell the coffee.”
Now it’s time to build on the Mr. Wilson Boy and cat cases, as well as the Duke
and pig cases, to advance effective humane education. Events are moving quickly. One of
the 14-year-olds who led the attack on Mr. Wilson Boy has already been sentenced to serve
up to seven years in custody of the Texas Youth Commission. The other will spend up to
seven years at a private boot camp. Hardin County Attorney David Sheffield told media on
October 5 that another six attackers may soon be sent to reform school, boot camp, or
group homes. In the Oklahoma cat-cutting case, Braggs school superintendent Jerry Allen
has reprimanded Duncan, but has not recommended firing him; police chief Duane
Morgan has cleared Duncan of criminal wrongdoing.
Though the outcomes differ, the quick resolutions end each matter for most of the
public––and that could mean opportunity lost, until another abuse case grabs similar note.
Humane education is moral education
Let us make plain that by “humane education” we mean a critical aspect of moral
education, now a popular cause of both parents and politicans, right and left. There is a
growing feeling that whatever worth “moral relativism” and “situation ethics” have lies
between a definite right and wrong, the bounds of which must be taught.
For some, this means a return to “traditional values.” This shouldn’t scare
humane educators. Many states made humane education a mandatory if unfunded and often
ignored aspect of curriculum a century or more ago––and in context, too: “humane education”
was then understood to mean education in all aspects of doing to others as you would
be done by. Humane lessons prepared by pioneers of the field ranged from why one
shouldn’t beat a horse or kick a dog or cat to the importance of maintaining temperance,
helping the poor, and providing sanctuary to the orphaned, the infirm, the insane, and the
aged. Realizing that one Sunday-school sermon a week was about all most children might
listen to, early humane educators eschewed lectures in favor of embedding their precepts in
handwriting exercises, essay contests, and public speaking competitions.
They were eminently successful. Early humane organizations had a prominent
part in achieving just about every major social reform of the first 150 years of U.S. nationhood,
from the abolition of slavery to the institution of free public education itself.
Two circumstances broke the momentum of humane education, both of which
were seeming triumphs. The first was the gradual agreement of government to accept
responsibility for enforcing public sobriety and providing indigent care. Temperance ceased
to be a concern of humane societies after the advent of Prohibition in 1919, while by midcentury
the last humane society orphanages closed, apparently no longer needed.
Humane societies simultaneously contracted in growing numbers to provide animal
control service. As they shut shelters for humans, they opened shelters for dogs and
cats. Humane education eroded from a rounded application of the Golden Rule, albeit
within the context that animals were used by humans, to narrow lessons in doggie and kitty
care. By the time the idea of ecology caught the public imagination and became integrated
into school curriculums, providng a new foundation for the concepts once taught by
humane educators, humane education had become an annual one-hour talk to children in
the lower grades––those presumably too young to be bored––and of course studies of this
type of teaching find that it has nil effect on adolescent attitudes and behavior.
Meanwhile, cases like the Oklahoma cat-cutting come up often enough to indicate
they are not greatly unusual. Just last spring a Montana high school teacher was caught
stealing cats and inviting students to his home to join him in rendering them down to skeletons.
He too skated through the uproar with just a reprimand.
We also get “help” messages like this one, from Florida:
“My younger sister is taking ‘ecology’ class in high school. They are supposed to
be learning about endangered species and food chains, but in the six weeks she has been in
this class, all she has been taught is how to get a hunting license. She complained to her
teacher, and he told her they will be learning about hunting and guns until next semester.
She went to her guidance counselor and asked to be transfered to a zoology class. He told
her no, that she had to learn to handle classes she doesn’t like. What can she do?”
Humane education as currently practiced, when it is practiced, has neither presence
nor relevance to such situations. The foundation to prevent such situations from developing
has never been laid.
Rural backwardness may be blamed, but humane groups have some soul-searching
to do, as well. We’ve never been to a humane gathering where speakers didn’t extoll
the importance of humane education, yet under “public education” on the IRS Form 990
filings of the leading animal advocacy groups, one finds listed only the costs of direct mail
fundraising. The groups that do the most “public education” do little or no humane education.
Even their multi-million-piece mailings go only to people who have previously donated
to humane organizations whose donor lists are for rent.
Almost as useless are such entities as the National Association for Humane and
Environmental Education, a subsidiary of the Humane Society of the U.S., whose Kind
News is available to classrooms by paid subscription only. We know exactly how much it
costs to publish and distribute such a newspaper, and we know that HSUS could send the
appropriate edition of Kind News free to every schoolroom in America for less than it
recently paid one corrupt vice president. The NAHEE endowment was willed to HSUS for
just such an effort, to offset the barrage of free materials sent to classrooms by the hunting
and animal agriculture industries. As we reported in October, the Illinois Department of
Environmental Conservation is actually p a y i n g teachers to use pro-hunting and trapping
propaganda––which must be countered.
It isn’t necessary, however, to preach, any more than it was in the days of
humane education via handwriting exercises. A low-key approach emphasizing information
applicable to other aspects of curriculum, such as science, geography, and human relations,
may be most appropriate. For instance, the educational, entertaining, inexpensive,
and readily available Really Wild Animals series from National Geographic Kids Video presents
sound factual data, from a widely respected source, about the wildlife of every habitat.
Increasing understanding about animals in itself enhances the development of empathy––and
the National Geographic people point out the likenesses of animal and human
behavior. Kindness Publications Inc. offers a book/video set, Lefty’s World a n d L e f t y ‘ s
P l a c e, which provides comparable nature education, centering on an injured Muscovy
duck, in a context that encourages thought about both how people treat animals and how
people treat other humans who have a handicap or an obvious ethnic distinction. Save the
sermons and show one of these videos. Establish a presence. Answer questions–– and
make sure students know they can call, any time, with further questions, whether in connection
with homework or with the moral dilemmas they will increasingly often perceive
once introduced to idea of animals as sentient, feeling and thinking individuals.
Empower students, and students themselves will do the debating and challenging––as
some did, in saving the cat in Braggs, Oklahoma, from further cuts by Razorblade
Duncan. That the cat was ever cut marked a failure of humane and moral education, but
that some students intervened showed how effective even a small amount of humane education
can be, even in an extremely rural and otherwise backward community.