Why Humane Education?

“We have statistics that show that education does improve animal welfare,” said first female Ontario SPCA chief inspector, Connie O’Mallory. She believes education gives people the knowledge and tools to change and cited supporting statistics. She credited education for an increase in animal welfare compliance rates from 57 percent to over 80 percent.

Lincoln Animal Ambassadors president, Mary Douglas, expressed a similar sentiment. To her, humane education helps people of all ages and all different walks of life. Animal control officer, Agnes Smith, referred to an interaction with a mother who didn’t know that 70 million dogs and cats are homeless. After hearing one of Smith’s presentations, the family committed to volunteer with and to adopt from an animal welfare group. Douglas also pointed out that, “People who don’t have animals or haven’t had animals don’t have any reference as to how animals should be treated or handled.”

And that’s exactly what humane education is: teaching people how to care for animals. The Humane Education Connections reports that a growing body of research that links childhood animal cruelty to later violent and anti-social behavior. The organization believes that education can break this cycle by replacing it with one of compassion, empathy, and responsibility taught through education.

Humane education is at the core of society’s ethical and moral values to treats animals right, said the host of Community Cats Podcast, Stacey LeBaron. “We use education to help bring those values into any community where we may be unsure if the community as a whole is treating their cats with compassion and care.”

Co-founder of Lakes Animal Friendship Society, Valerie Ingram, said that LAFS operates all its programs on the principle that “healthy, happy animals are part of healthy, happy families and communities”.  She said that many social issues are intertwined, and that animal welfare efforts contribute to moving the whole community forward.

The importance of humane education is backed up by statistics and through anecdotal evidence.

Mary Douglas recalled inviting Mayor Beitler to help with an LAA video about spay/neuter. The mayor was reading text provided to him that listed the numbers of cats and dogs which can be born to one male and female in seven years. Douglas says he looked at her and asked, “Have you researched these numbers?  Are they right?” The numbers she said were accurate but, like the mayor, most people have no idea.

She also talked about her presentation to students. “I love seeing their face when I go through a little example of how fast cats can re-produce.  I get a couple of bags of cotton balls—each cotton ball is a cat—and I show how many cats a male and female cat can have in one year along with their offspring. Then another year, etc.  At the end, we have a huge pile of cotton balls. Then I ask them, ‘Are there enough homes to adopt all of these cats?’ They immediately agree “NO!”

Rachel Geller, a Certified Humane Education Specialist, believes that it’s by teaching children to respect animals that we can create a society that is caring and compassionate to animals.

Geller offered the example of a volunteer at a shelter in her area who started bringing her son with her. “Her son had struggled emotionally due to physical and verbal abuse that he’d suffered in the volunteer’s previous marriage,” Geller said. “School was difficult for her son academically, and he was also teased and bullied.” Over time, the volunteer’s son connected and bonded with the cats that were too fearful to respond to most people. Not only did the cats change, but so did her son. “The emotional damage he suffered seemed to fade,” Geller said. “The cats trusted him, and in doing so, the cats restored his trust in people.”

Ingram and her husband have been working in animal welfare for the past eight years. The couple started LAFS to help improve the happiness and health of the community’s animals and families. “We want to help children and communities to take action to reduce the suffering, to change attitudes and behaviors,” she explained. “We want to give everyone hope that change is possible.”

Valerie Ingram described a couple of projects that local youth got involved with through LAFS. Students started a TNR project by raising funds to help spay/neuter, feed, and provide shelter for 400 community cats. The students also contributed artwork and helped write the ending of LAFS’s first picture book, Nobody’s Cats, which told the story of their TNR project. “Thousands of copies of the book are in the hands of students, regional schools, libraries, animal welfare, and humane education groups across North America and beyond,” said Ingram. “So not only are our students being ambassadors for animal welfare within our community, they’re also seeing the ripple of compassion spread.”

Student involvement didn’t end with the TNR project, but continued when a high school class and their teacher decided to build and give away insulated dog houses and community cat boxes. “Now we involve classrooms and families to build houses for their furry family members. To date we have built or refurbished nearly 300 houses for dogs and cats in need, Ingram said.  As with the TNR project, the insulated pet house inspired a LAFS picture book. Out of the Cold would like all pets to be kept indoors but recognizes the need for all-weather shelters for those pets that are kept outside Students similarly helped with artwork and story elements.

The field of humane education is not without challenges.

Mary Douglas sometimes struggles to convince pet owners to change the way they care for their pets. She recounted an incident that happened at a fundraiser at a local restaurant. “There was a car outside in the hot summer of 100 degrees with a [dog] in it. The windows were cracked, and they were parked in the shade of the building, but it was still very hot in the car.”

Douglas discovered the dog belonged to a family who had come to support LAA because through the nonprofit they had been able to spay the dog and receive pet food. She told them that when the outside temperature is just 70 degrees the temperature in a car can reach 100.

“The grandpa explained that the dog would tear things up at the house if they left it home alone, and so they always took it with them,” Douglas said. “I just had to keep reminding them that they loved the dog enough to get it spayed and take care of it, and that it’d be terrible if they came out some day and the dog was dead because it was way too hot in the car.  I hope I convinced them.”

The most challenging aspect of humane education for Valerie Ingram is dealing with the people who aren’t animal lovers and don’t understand those who pour their hearts, souls, and resources into animal welfare. Rachel Geller finds herself in the same predicament. She’s often asked, “Why are you spending your time helping cats or animals? Why aren’t you helping people?” Like Ingram, she believes that when she helps animals, she’s also helping people.

By way of illustration, Geller recounted a call that she received recently through her cat behavior counseling service. A woman wanted help finding a shelter to take her cat that had been in her family since it was a kitten. “The woman had cancer and two children, and was terrified, exhausted, and overwhelmed,” said Geller. “Amidst all of this, she had an older cat and she was feeling bad because she couldn’t give the cat enough attention.”

Geller says that she and the woman talked for a long time. Eventually Geller told her, “Your children are stressed because you’re sick. But they’ll feel even more stressed by losing this beloved family pet.” Geller also reminded the lady that cats are basically loyal, caring, and perceptive animals. “That cat was part of the family,” Geller pointed out. “Families experience rough times together, and the cat would surely prefer to give up some attention temporarily rather than be separated from her family permanently. You don’t split up a family simply because times are hard!”

By then, Geller says, the woman was crying. She asked Geller for reassurance that it would really be okay to keep her cat, proving to Geller that the woman didn’t really want to give up her cat but just wanted to do the right thing. Geller reassured the woman and promised her support. “In the end,” Geller said, “the woman kept her cat.”

Agnes Smith believes that one solution to the challenges of humane education is to reach children when they’re young enough to be positively influenced by a program and to even become animal  ambassadors.

“It’s best to give before you’re received,” said Stacey LeBaron. “I find if you’re going to work in a community that you don’t personally live in it’s not a good idea to go in and ‘preach’ your way in.” She recommended that animal welfare groups go into a community and offer free vaccinations, microchipping, and spay/neuter and to provide a resource list about how people can help. “It’s best to first bring in resources and offer solutions to challenging situations, and through “doing” you’ll create new humane relationships.”

LeBaron lives by her own advice. She worked for twenty years with Community Cats in Massachusetts, before she became president of the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society, leading the MRFRS Mentoring program, or hosting the Community Cats Podcast. For the podcast LeBaron records interviews with leaders in the animal welfare field. Her hope is that those stories will “inspire others to take action and to believe that they can succeed even with challenges. We also aim to provide valuable information that folks can use in their programs and communities.”

In the end, education can also change the educator. “By doing the Community Cats Podcast,” said LeBaron, “I’ve become so much more sympathetic to the very different challenges that people face in their communities.” Before starting the podcast two years ago, LeBaron believed that animal homelessness could be eliminated if only animal welfare groups offered services at either no cost or low cost all across the country. Through the podcast, she discovered that legislation, along with lack of funding and volunteers, could hinder the development of a humane community cat program, along with other challenges such as lack of funding and volunteers. “Having legislation hinder progress in a community really made me understand the need for some other supportive tools in our tool-kit.”

Rachel Geller pointed to many ways that she’s been changed through her experiences as a humane educator. One, she says, is that’s become much more aware of her use of language. “Expressions such as ‘kill two birds with one stone’ or ‘don’t let the cat out of the bag’ normalize violence towards animals, so I avoid using those types of expressions, and gently point them out to others when I hear them.”

In addition, Geller has taken a more of an active role in her community by identifying and reporting animal abuse. “I’ve met with my state representatives and state senators to advocate for laws that provide better protections for animals. I feel strongly that we are their stewards.”

On the horizon are more stewards. Stacey LeBaron, who has recorded over 250 Community Cats podcasts, pointed to “incredible and inspiring work happening in the field. I think we’re going to see some very exciting new individual leaders in the field … Jackson Galaxy leads the group … Then there’s the Cat Man of West Oakland and Sterling Davis. There are quite a few woman leaders in the field too, with Hannah Shaw being the most notable.”

All the organizations featured here depend on volunteers, which can include humane education outreach. Please help them by spreading the word about their services and by donating your time and money to their cause. Specifically, you can help Lincoln Animal Ambassadors by writing for LAA Pet Talk and by giving generously on Give to Lincoln Day this May 31st.

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