Editorial: Instinct vs. education
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1997:
“A seven-year-old boy and his father were hiking through a cornfield near Green
Bay when they saw two hawks fighting,” Karen Herzog of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
recently reported. “A redtailed hawk fell to the ground, ripped open from her eye to her
beak and down her neck and breast bone. The father told his son to stay by the bird while
he got help. When the father returned, he was surprised to find his small son on the
ground, his body curled over the bird to protect her from the other hawk, who was still targeting
her adversary. The boy’s winter coat was tattered from the dive-bombing hawk
attacks, but both the boy protector and the injured hawk were safe.”
The redtail thus rescued, hurt too badly to be released after treatment, is now the
star of the Schlitz Audubon Center, Herzog wrote, while the February 1995 incident is a
staple of educational presentations by center raptor program coordinator Diane Visty.
Two other examples of a child’s empathy and instinctive heroism had tragic
results in early January. Tommy Tyler, age 3, of Santa Rosa, California, was killed in a
New Year’s Eve housefire when he rushed to save the family dog and a litter of puppies.
“The toddler was not where everyone thought he would be,” Rincon Valley Fire
District assistant chief Mark D’Ambrogi told Jim Herron Zamora of the San Francisco
Examiner. “Everyone was asleep in bed except the small child. The family looked all over
for him,” except in the utility room where the puppies were, “but couldn’t find him. The
fire was moving so fast they had to go outside.”
Belatedly realizing Tommy would be with the puppies, his brother Steven reentered
the blazing house. He was critically injured, with burns over 50% of his body.
Ten days later, a four-year-old playing with a cigarette lighter near a dry
Christmas tree ignited a trailer home near midnight in Everett, Washington. The 17-yearold
baby sitter dragged him and a three-year-old to safety. Trapped farther inside, Calantha
Vichitnand, 10, pushed her eight-year-old brother toward a window, where neighbor
Gavin Ryder, 22, smashed the glass, and pulled him out. Calantha, however, turned
back to get her dog, and was killed, apparently by flashover.
Firefighters know that if a child is missing at a housefire, the way to find the child
is to find the pet or pets. The child without a pet may try to save a favorite toy––usually a
soft fuzzy toy animal, which serves as makebelieve companion and source of comfort.
Even when children are not missing, firefighters frequently risk death or injury to
save animals, often against departmental directives, from a combination of compassion for
the animals and the knowledge that if a properly equipped firefighter doesn’t attempt the
rescue, a child may try instead, and like Tommy Tyler and Calantha Vichitnand be killed
through underestimating the danger.
These phenomena exist quite apart from any influence of humane education,
other than what comes with the show in Walt Disney movies. Indeed, while humane values
seem to have been strong among the Tyler boys, it seems likely from the presence of
the litter of puppies, whom the elder members of the family neither remembered nor tried
to rescue, that these values were intuitive, not taught. The elder Tylers may have
absorbed, as unconsciously as most adults, the common cultural attitude that animals are
expendible. This is the only attitude a society can live with when it raises nine billion animals
per year in factory conditions, trucks them as if insensate, and kills them in a highspeed
industrial process. Children know that animals are persons until older people teach
them otherwise through examples of indifferent treatment and direct denial. Very young
children are typically not told where meat comes from; as most baby-care books point out,
they often balk at eating it anyway, and as the books usually omit but generations of parents
have observed, they balk all the more if they know. Slightly older children are told
that pigs want to become Oscar Meyer wieners, and that Charlie wants to become canned
tuna––and if they ask about milk, they hear nothing about calves being deprived of their
mothers, or of most cattle being killed at about their own ages, two through four years.
Desensitization typically escalates by adolescence to include a series of “bloodings,”
the rituals through which children receive the status of killers, equated with steps
toward adulthood. Those taught to hunt may literally be “blooded,” the rite in which
Prince Charles of England and friends recently smeared blood over royal sons William and
Harry to mark their introduction to fox-hunting and captive bird-shooting.
For future farmers, there may be the exercise of raising an animal as a quasi-pet,
exhibiting the animal during an intense few days at a fair that may even include sleeping on
the same straw, and then––by 4-H rule––auctioning the animal to be killed.
“Blooding” is most frequent, however, in formal education, where dissection
remains the focus of many middle and high school science curriculums. The more promising
the student, the greater the pressure to dissect. As dissection defenders insist, it provides
a basic understanding of life––but not the way they mean. Rather, learning to dissect
is basic training in how to distance oneself, under orders, from tasks otherwise morally
repugnant. The coping artifices that livestock consultant Temple Grandin has identified in
slaughterhouse workers are to some extent universal: self-mechanization, numbing feelings
to get through it; denial, pretending to be elsewhere; sadism, inverting normal attitudes;
and ritualization, persuading oneself that whatever atrocities one commits are for the
greater good. Without such coping mechanisms, many humans could not go to the grocery
store, read the news, or do what many do to make a living.
Conventional humane education rarely dares challenge the process––and not only
because humane educators are afraid of being pitched out of schools, where most have a
tenuous presence to begin with. Most classroom humane education is done by ranking staff
of mainstream humane societies, whose primary work for more than a century has been coopted
from their original pursuit of bringing about the humane transformation of civilization
into managing the mass destruction of surplus dogs and cats. In consequence, observed
psychologist Alan Beck about 17 years ago, the culture of humane societies came to center
on the killing room, with the moral emphasis on killing animals in the ritual mode.
“Blooding,” in the form of learning to do humane euthanasia, became the rite-of-passage
for shelter workers; the worker who didn’t kill was seen as unfit to criticise. The notion of
doing humane work without killing became equated with heresy––or fraud.
The example of neutering
Coming more-or-less as the animal rights movement rose to reassert some of the
original goals of the humane movement, the Beck critique helped to bring about profound
positive change. After decades of merely asking people to neuter pets, rarely taking an
active part in getting it done, humane societies and animal rights groups have since approximately
1987 joined Friends of Animals in the crusade FoA has waged since 1957 to actually
provide universal, convenient access to low-cost neutering. As the FoA initiative sparked
recognition of the need to neuter in the New York City area, the number of animals killed
in New York City shelters, to cite just one locale, has dropped from a quarter of a million
in 1962 to under 40,000 in 1996. Through the contrary examples of the San Francisco
SPCA, the North Shore Animal League, and other leaders in rejecting animal control
killing, it is now possible to forsee a time, not far from now, when population control
killing, at least, will be history––and humane society staff will be free to reject the complicity
in mass slaughter that has marked practically all aspects of life in the 20th century.
In particular, a new generation of humane workers and their bravest seniors must
begin to challenge blooding, in whatever forms the rituals take. This requires challenging
children––and parents and teachers––to think in depth about acts that involve other lives,
either animal or human. Shallow lessons in doggie and kitty care may offer entry for discussion,
but the humane educator who doesn’t address hunting is ignoring a source of animal
suffering that presently claims up to 40 times as many animal lives as pet overpopulation,
and the humane educator who doesn’t talk about meat, including fish, is ignoring
more than 95% of all animal suffering. The discussion need not and should not be onesided.
Humane educators must learn to engage proponents of hunting, classroom dissection,
and the meat industry in direct debate, as ANIMAL PEOPLE did a few years ago at
a forum on hunting, for gradeschoolers, organized by the Merck Center at West Rupert,
Vermont. The object of such debate is not to “win” converts; rather, it is simply to raise
issues and questions in such a manner as to inspire children to go on raising issues and questions
for years to come. Blooding works by inducing complicity, limiting the issues,
silencing questions. Blooding fails when the issues expand and questions continue.
The best regular classroom teachers and school districts welcome well-constructed
supplementary programs and materials, especially those which can be integrated with the
teaching of mandatory subjects, are multifaceted (not based on mere propaganda from any
one perspective), and emphasize fairness.
Of course parents and others who feel threatened by questions may indeed oust
humane educators from some schools for efforts to introduce critical thinking and questionasking.
This occurred last November 20 in Prairie City, Oregon, whose school board
ordered teacher Rick Bogle, a vegetarian, to discontinue after one week a planned threeweek
forum on animal rights issues, which featured speakers from the Oregan State
Extension Service and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as one mainstream
humane worker and one out-of-town animal rights activist.
Obviously classrooms can’t be the only venue for humane education. Neither
should they be. After-school clubs, open-access public television, church groups, scouting,
and weekend or summer programs organized by humane societies themselves also
offer significant opportunities––as many humane societies already recognize. Less well recognized
is that humane education shouldn’t be expected to pay for itself, that it is indeed a
function much more in keeping with the presumed purpose of humane societies than animal
control ever was, and accordingly can and should be a primary use of donations. The
humane movement actually began with an emphasis on improving the lives of both children
and animals, remembered in the parallel animal and child protection divisions of the
American Humane Association, whose 1876 formation followed such earlier humane
achievements as the abolition of slavery, institution of free public schooling, opening of
charitable orphanages, and foundation of the Red Cross. Much as the humane movement
has belatedly recognized the necessity of providing universal affordable access to neutering,
humane organizations must recognize that authentic educational materials, not just disguised
funding appeals, must be distributed to classrooms and school libraries for free,
because those who most need them will have little interest in paying for them, and because
politics may interfere with the issuance of a purchase order even if funds for such materials
are available. Similarly, extra-curricular activities must be offered without charge: parents
will send children to take advantage of a free program, but will only understand the worth
of anything that comes with a fee attached if they already accept the underlying principles.
Putting our money where our mouth is, ANIMAL PEOPLE has from inception
sent free subscriptions to school libraries on request, as we’ve publicized through mass
mailings to schools. Besides tracking apparent heavy use of the copies we send to schools,
we’re also looking for longterm effects. We’d like to see longterm results from all types of
humane education, to see and share just exactly which approachs are working. If you have
longterm data from your program, please send it in, as we’ll be revisiting this issue as often
as it takes to make real humane education a genuine priority.