A larger circle of compassion

Puja Mahajan

“There is no better approach to teaching children the value of human life than instilling in them an appreciation for all life. If you can teach a child to respect and protect the smallest and most maligned among us – as PETA’s humane-education programme does – you create a better citizen.” – Anupam Kher

There are more than seven billion humans on the planet today. We can be found on every continent and in every climate. But we are just one type of animal on this planet – there are as many as 100 million other species sharing the earth with us. We must find a way to cohabitate peacefully with our fellow earthlings. We must teach students to respect and value all life in order to build strong, compassionate citizens of tomorrow.

peta-1 Mahatma Gandhi has said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” For some of us, our moral progress can be found sorely wanting. People frequently treat animals like inanimate objects rather than fellow living beings. Animals can suffer in the same way and to the same degree that humans do. They feel pain, pleasure, fear, frustration, loneliness, and love.

Developing empathy for animals can be a key step towards developing empathy for all beings; researchers have found that people who mistreat animals often also mistreat humans. A US study revealed that a history of abusing animals is one of the four most significant indicators that a person is at risk of engaging in domestic violence. This can perpetuate a cycle of abuse, as research suggests that children who are exposed to domestic violence are themselves more likely to be cruel to animals.

And it is not only the family unit that suffers from this violence. Cruelty to animals is a common trait among serial rapists and serial killers. The infamous US cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer, for example, first tortured and decapitated animals before moving on to murdering humans. One US study showed that people who abused animals were five times more likely to commit violent crimes against humans.

Parkash Krishna Gavane, a senior police inspector in Thane, Maharashtra, says, “It is now a well-documented fact that many murderers and other criminals have a history of cruelty to animals. Teaching compassion to young children can be a good preventive measure in the effort to reduce crime.”

Teaching children empathy, then, is just as good for society as it is for animals. It is also good for the children themselves. Research shows that being compassionate may be one of the best ways to improve one’s own health. Compassionate people tend to be happier, have greater levels of physical activity into old age and have longer life spans. By teaching children empathy, we might be helping them lead healthier lives.

It is clear that we must teach students to be kind to animals. But how do we do this? One of the best ways is by teaching children the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or “Treat animals the way you want to be treated.” Challenging students to act within this framework not only educates them about personal responsibility but also teaches them that others – both human and non-human – deserve our kindness and respect.

peta-2 There are numerous ways you can teach kindness towards animals and the Golden Rule in your classroom. Consider incorporating People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India’s free Compassionate Citizen programme (see box) into your lessons. Research animal protection issues and add a unit on the topic to your lesson plans. Encourage your students to be aware of animals in their communities, and teach kids how to report sick or injured animals to authorities. Ask your students to look in newspapers for animal related stories, and then use these to start a class discussion on showing compassion to animals and why this is important.

Animal rights issues are also deeply interconnected with other topics and there are likely natural overlaps between humane education and subjects you regularly teach. Brainstorm ways you can use the material which is already in your lesson plans to demonstrate compassion for animals.

For example, a science class could look into how factory farming contributes to global climate change or could research scientific alternatives to testing on animals. A language class could write essays on what characteristics they share with their favourite animals or learn respectful ways to describe animals, such as using pronouns like “she” and “he” rather than “it”. A social studies class could look at how stray animals are treated in their community and come up with ways to make their lives better.

Even more finite subjects can overlap with animal issues. A music class could discuss synthetic alternatives to instruments often made from animal products, such as drums or bows. A business class could examine how the public’s growing awareness of abuse of animals in circuses has changed circuses’ business plans towards going animal-free or do a case study on a growing vegan business.

You can also teach compassion by setting a positive example. If you see an injured animal, let authorities know, and then tell your class about how you helped. If a circus that uses animals comes to town, start a discussion with your students about why you won’t be going. Speak out in your community against cruelty to animals. Encourage your school to set policies that protect animals from use in classrooms. And ask your fellow faculty members to brainstorm ways they can incorporate lessons about kindness to animals into their classroom activities. Your students respect you. If you show compassion, they are likely to follow suit.

As educators, our goal is to give children the knowledge with which to become productive members of society. Teaching your students compassion for all beings is an important step on the road to healthy individuals, healthy communities, and a healthy world.

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Learning to care for animals

Compassionate Citizen is PETA India’s humane-education programme, which is designed to help students better understand and appreciate animals. Compassionate Citizen is appropriate for students between 8 and 12 years of age and can be used in language, arts, science, social studies and value-education curricula. The programme is endorsed by the government body, the Animal Welfare Board of India, as well as the Central Board of Secondary Education and has been voluntarily used in over 25,000 private and government schools, reaching 5 million children across India.

Through Compassionate Citizen, PETA offers free materials, free online lesson plans, tips for making your school and classroom more animal-friendly and inspiration for aspiring humane educators. In the activities that form the core of the programme, students use their reasoning and writing skills to examine the meaningful and complex lives of animals, explore how our relationships with them have changed over time, discover alternatives to their use and learn how to respond when animals are in trouble. After completing the programme, students will have gained a richer understanding of animals and developed a sense of how to treat animals as fellow beings who deserve compassion and respect.

Vithika Rahul, the head of the Psychology Department at Delhi Public School, R K Puram, had this to say about the programme: “After thoroughly studying the details of [Compassionate Citizen], I find this programme to be effective in creating empathy, love, and tolerance amongst students.”

The author is a Senior Education Coordinator at PETA India. She is responsible for promotion and integration of its humane-education programme, Compassionate Citizen in the official curriculum of schools across India for children ages 8 to 12 years. For more information on the programme, visit compassionatecitizen.org. She can be reached at [email protected].

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