zoeweilmainepic500hby Zoe Weil

President, Institute for Humane Education

What should character education teach students about kindness to animals?

At first, the answer to this question might seem obvious: people of good character treat nonhuman animals with respect and consideration; therefore, we should educate students to be compassionate and responsible citizens in relation to other species. Role models for good character, such as Albert Schweitzer and Mahatma Gandhi, articulate clear responsibilities toward animals. Gandhi went so far as to say, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” 

But it’s not that simple.

Our relationships with animals are fraught with inconsistencies. For example, it’s illegal to press a hot iron into the flesh of a conscious dog or cat to leave a permanent mark, and if found out, the perpetrator would be charged with criminal cruelty. But it’s perfectly legal to do this to other animals able to feel just as much pain as dogs and cats, and it’s done routinely to cows. It’s called branding.

It would also be illegal to put a pet bird into a cage so small she could never stretch a wing, or to sear off half her beak with a hot blade without painkillers or anesthesia. But it’s perfectly legal to do this to chickens, and it’s the norm for hundreds of millions of hens confined to tiny cages for the duration of their lives in modern egg factories.

The challenge that we face when we wish to bring nonhuman animals into the conversation about good character is that our laws and our normative behaviors are, sadly, often inhumane to animals. 

Given this, how can we teach about our responsibilities toward animals?

In grade school, our primary focus can be reverence-building. When we help students to feel awe, wonder, appreciation and love for other species, whether beloved companion animals, amazing megafauna or those equally extraordinary creatures whom we too often characterize as “pests” (spiders, crows, bats, to name a few) or reference with disdain (pigs, turkeys, weasels), we pave the way for more responsible choices later. Here are two ideas.

1. Deconstruct common insults that use animals as the object of derision (“He’s such a pig,” “She ratted me out,” “Don’t be a chicken,” etc.). Share and read stories about pigs, rats, chickens and others that overturn the stereotypes and reveal the cleanliness of pigs, the intelligence and friendliness of rats, and the bravery of chickens. 

2. Take your students on a “Wonder Walk”  that allows them to fall in love with our beautiful planet and all who reside upon it. This activity, done in pairs, invites students to experience nature through their senses and appreciate the interconnected web of life.

In middle school, students can begin to use their critical-thinking skills to assess our treatment of animals and determine their values and views in relation to them. An excellent activity to get their wheels turning is “Alien in the Ethical Universe,”  which invites students to answer simple, yet thought-provoking questions from an “alien” visiting planet Earth and trying to understand how to behave in relation to others. 

By high school, students can be invited to investigate and examine common societal practices that are inhumane toward animals, and to become actively engaged in projects and efforts that seek solutions and foster greater respect and compassion for other animals. In so doing, students learn the power of using their voices in service to their hearts and minds for the greater good. 

When we extend character education to include nonhuman animals, it’s important to be willing to examine our own preconceived notions. We need to respect differences of opinion, and to invite deep thought and lively conversation, so that together we can come to meaningful conclusions about our responsibilities toward other sentient beings and extend good character beyond anthropocentrism.

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The author is co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education, in Surry, Maine. She is considered a pioneer in the comprehensive humane education movement and may be contacted at info@humaneeducation.org. She has been a presenter and exhibitor at the National Forum on Character Education.