|Humane educator (& IHE grad) Karen Patterson|
gives a "connected" humane ed presentation to a
group of girl scouts.
The lightbulb moment for me about the importance of teaching others about social, environmental, and animal issues, came a few years ago, when I worked as a clerk in a WIC (Women, Infants and Children) clinic. A large percentage of our clients were agricultural workers, with the attendant low wages and high poverty. One day, a woman came in with her little boy. He was often agitated and angry when he came. This day, he was especially out of sorts.
“Mom, I want a bird.”
“Mom, I want a bird!”
“Tomas, no! We can’t have a bird, every bird we’ve had dies; the house is too cold for a bird.”
This short exchange had a great impact on my life; it was the catalyst for my enrollment in IHE’s graduate program, and for my pursuing comprehensive (or what I like to call "connected") humane education. I often wonder how that little boy's life might have been different if, for example, the local humane society and the WIC program had partnered together to teach Tomas and other children about kindness and empathy...and to give them a chance to interact lovingly with animals, so that Tomas could have had that connection he clearly craved and could have learned lifelong skills. Further, perhaps an informed community could have been galvanized to help improve conditions for local migrant workers, and address the grinding poverty that makes a family have to choose between food and heat. There were so many missed opportunities here.
Karen Patterson, IHE graduate and humane education director at the Humane Society of Huron Valley, says, “Nothing is just an animal issue.” If the environment is destroyed, it’s no good for humans or non-human animals. When people live in unrelenting poverty, their priority is survival, not other animals or the environment.
Animal shelters and humane societies are in a unique position to highlight these connections between animal protection and the social and environmental issues that affect their communities and the planet.
Here are a few ideas for casting a wider net and practicing connected humane education. It’s not an exhaustive list, but I hope it inspires those of you who work in shelters to consider the possibilities.
Humane Education in Shelter Operations
Incorporating humane education in the shelter’s daily operations is an easy way to highlight connections. As humane educator Kim Korona says, “Increasing empathy for all beings and the planet helps to increase compassion specifically for dogs and cats.” She suggests that these practices are also a great way to connect with environmentalists and human rights activists who can support the shelter’s work. Some steps shelters can take that provide rich opportunities for educating and instilling compassion in every choice we make, include:
- Recycle and reuse everything possible in both office and public areas.
- Use reusable plates, cups, and utensils in the kitchen.
- Turn off unnecessary appliances and electronics when not in use.
- Go vegan for shelter meetings and get-togethers, as well as for public events. Make sure the food is tasty; that’s the most effective way to win people over!
- Purchase earth-friendly, cruelty-free, and fair trade products, both for the shelter, and for your retail store, if you have one. Calling attention to products that don’t harm the environment, that are manufactured without the use of child or slave labor, and that don't use animal products or involve animal testing shines a light on those issues with minimal effort.
- For volunteer T-shirts or tote bags, look into organic cotton, or other sustainable materials, and be sure the items are made in ways that respect and support workers' rights.
- Shelters can also take the step of getting SERF (Society of Environmentally Responsible Facilities) or LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Granted, it can be expensive to get certified, but look at the criteria and perhaps do one or two of them as a start.
It’s an understatement to say that the shelter environment can be challenging; compassion fatigue is ever-present, and morale can plummet when faced with a seemingly endless number of needy animals. Mary Pat Champeau, IHE’s Director of Education says, “The idea that employees are not only contributing to the health and welfare of the animals in their care, but also to the greater good for the whole planet by seeing connections and making decisions based on a broader context can be very uplifting.” We all feel good when we are part of a larger purpose.
Of course, presentations offer a direct way to educate and to address connections. Karen says, “I can’t imagine teaching humane education lessons without pulling in other areas. To me, they depend on and affect each other, and it is important to bridge them together when teaching lessons.”
For instance, we can talk about prejudice by drawing a line from the bias towards certain animals, like snakes, or certain breeds, like Pit Bulls, to bias towards people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else that is perceived as “different.” The increasing number of droughts, wildfires, and floods that are being attributed to climate change affect not only the human food supply, health and safety, but also the health, safety, and well-being of domestic and wild animals.
When Karen teaches about dog fighting, she talks not only about the consequences to the dogs, but also the impact on human health and safety. Educators at PAWS in Lynnwood, Washington, talk about the environment as well as animal welfare in their wildlife presentations. Kim Korona taught a program about the connection between climate change and the increase in cat pregnancies. Who knew?!
Humane educator Shawn Sweeney suggests that shelters look at the issues in their communities that may set the stage for people to abandon or abuse animals, such as domestic violence or a high poverty rate. In my own community, we recently held public hearings regarding a horse slaughter ban. It was rumored that the owner of a defunct slaughterhouse was looking to start operations again, slaughtering horses. The issue gave me the opportunity to educate not only about the consequences to horses, but also to workers and the local watershed. Fortunately, the council passed an ordinance banning horse slaughter facilities in the county.
In your presentations, there may not be time to go deeply into these issues, but you can still plant seeds. As humane educators, we want kids to think critically, so put it out there and let them draw their own conclusions. They’ll get it.
Infusing connected humane education throughout daily operations and in public presentations at shelters and humane societies will only add to the value of the organization, and will make the world a better place not only for animals, but people and the planet, too.
For lesson plan ideas:
Institute for Humane Education
Association of Professional Humane Educators
Thanks to IHE grads Shawn Sweeney, Kim Korona, and Karen Patterson; PAWS Humane Ed Manager, Sandy Warner; and IHE’s Director of Education, Mary Pat Champeau, for their insights.
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