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Shaping kinder kids, Part I: Humane Abe

HSUS senior policy advisor Bernard Unti recalls one of Lincoln's lesser known legacies

From Animal Sheltering magazine Fall 2017

As animal welfare leaders continue to push the sheltering and rescue field into the future, finding new strategies to tackle the roots of animal homelessness and cruelty, it pays to keep in mind that kindness has roots as well.

Reaching children at early ages with messages of gentleness, empathy and compassion—for humans and other animals alike—is one of the critical means of watering those roots, shaping not only kinder citizens, but engaging future generations in the cause that’s central to so many of us. In this section, we profile some people who may be inspiring the animal advocates of the future, and hear a passionate argument for prioritizing humane education.

One of the greatest authenticated anecdotes about the greatest of American presidents concerns his speech advocating kindness to animals, given when he was still a boy, in a classroom along the frontier in the early 1820s. There is no exact record of his remarks, but one witness recalled that “Abe preached against cruelty to animals, contending that an ant’s life was to it, as sweet as ours to us.”

Abraham Lincoln’s formal schooling lasted only a few months, but I think it’s sublime to imagine the man who would go on to author the Gettysburg Address cutting his oratory teeth with a talk to schoolmates about the need to do right by animals. It’s no surprise that Lincoln has long been a hero for humane advocates, the very model of a kindhearted person who was nonetheless up to the challenges of governing a nation in turmoil and conflict.  

As young Lincoln’s speech demonstrates, humane education pre-dates the animal protection movement itself. It came into its own in the mid to late 18th century under the influence of British philosopher John Locke, whose theory of environmentalism gained a large following among the authors and consumers of children’s literature. Locke argued that environment and socialization—not genetic inheritance—shape human character. His views inspired authors to produce books for children that emphasized socially desirable values and behaviors, and motivated parents to buy them. Such works encouraged piety, faithfulness, duty, truthfulness and kindness to animals, among other traits, and children loved them.

When the first animal protection societies formed in the United States, in the years following the Civil War, most of them had humane education programs, and this remains true for many local societies today. I’ve long contended that any movement with vision and aspirations should plan and prepare for the socialization of future generations, inspiring and informing young people who must become the champions and stewards of that movement’s progress. In humane work, there is no investment of time and effort that pays a greater long-term dividend than that which we make in teaching children the basic tenets of kindness to animals and associated values.

With the increased interest in preventing bullying, violence and other forms of cruelty among children, schools may be more inclined to take an interest in programs offering solid character education materials. It is clear to me that the future of humane education lies with community-based organizations and individual educators committed to reaching young people, whether directly through the school system or through afternoon or weekend programs. 

At the local level, humane education is thriving, despite challenges that include limited resources, core curriculum mandates, the demands of program evaluation, the need for teacher training and the politicization of the classroom. The internet abounds with examples of good programming being carried out worldwide and has supported the emergence of a true community of practice, one with global reach. Individual educators employed or working as volunteers with community-based organizations are finding ways to connect with young people both in and outside the classroom, and I’m certain that humane education has a bright future.

I believe that every animal care and services department, every humane society and SPCA, and every rescue group should have a humane education program in place, however modest. One of the sad truths about humane education is that, while everyone in the field tends to recognize its value and support it in theory, few are willing to pay for it.

We must embrace our challenges in this arena constructively and energetically. Today, few national organizations are leading in this realm, making it all the more important that we build and support humane education from the grassroots up. Because it is intertwined in discussions of the moral development of children, the challenge of global sustainability, and the relationship of humans to the natural environment and all of its inhabitants, humane education is profoundly connected to our future as a society. In an era of climate change, unbridled development and other threats to human and animal well-being and survival, we need humane education more than ever.

I’m truly pleased about the continuing progress we’re seeing in the professionalization of humane education, as evidenced by the vitality of the Association of Professional Humane Educators, the Certified Humane Education Specialist program of the Academy of Prosocial Learning, the curriculum and outreach work of HEART (Humane Education Advocates Reaching Teachers) and RedRover, and other initiatives. The development of professional cadres is essential to the further establishment of humane education, because it is through their work that we’ll lay the social, cultural and psychological foundations for a truly humane society. It’s one of the reasons that I have committed more and more of my time to speak in favor of humane education and to train practitioners at the annual HSUS Animal Care Expo, at regional conferences and in other forums.

I’d like to see humane education become a stronger priority for foundations that support animal protection and for the larger national organizations. But it can flourish even in the absence of such backing, so long as our grassroots and community-level institutions are willing to show the way. Anyone can become a humane educator or public speaker with a bit of training and guidance.

I can think of many things I’d like to learn about humane education over the next few years. Can we promote a higher standard for evaluation and assessment, one that vindicates humane education’s longstanding promise? Can it help to unlock the key to children’s developing ideas about animals and the need to protect them? Just how do its lessons and impacts carry on into adulthood?

I’ve said elsewhere that humane education is the ultimate act of faith for the field, investing in the idea that there are young people out there, waiting to hear our message and to get involved. I once saw a headline in an old HSUS publication, “Tomorrow’s humanitarians are in today’s classrooms.” I certainly hope so, just as I hope to see other animal protectionists take up the challenge of supporting our outreach to those advocates of the future.

Read Shaping kinder kids, Part II: Captivated audience

Read Shaping kinder kids, Part III: Have you heard the Kind News?

Read Shaping kinder kids, Part IV: Life lessons

Bernard Unti is senior policy adviser and special assistant to the president and CEO of The HSUS. A historian by training, he writes and speaks extensively on the history of animal protection and the evolution of human attitudes toward animals.

About the Author

Bernard Unti is Senior Policy Advisor and Special Assistant to the President & CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, and works on wide range of strategic, policy, program, and communications priorities.  An historian by training, he’s spoken and written extensively on the history of animal protection, the evolution of human attitudes toward animals, humane education, sheltering, and related topics.   He’s a keen collector of historical ephemera relating to the cause of animals, he loves to speak to humane groups, and he has the best PowerPoint slides.