I really enjoy working with youngsters and talking about animal behavior, conservation, and human-animal relationships, or as one kid said, it should be called animal-human relationships. Many youngsters are keenly interested in these topics and often ask questions that belie their age. Not only are many youngsters well versed on animal behavior from watching the various companions with whom they share their home, but they also watch incredibly good documentaries on TV. A good number also are very concerned about how animals are mistreated, and ask questions that show they empathize with, and feel compassion for, the plight of other animals.
I'm always careful when I talk with youngsters about these and other topics, and allow them to set the course for the discussion at hand. Discussing animal abuse can be traumatizing, but because of easy access to mass media, most of the youngsters know far more than I did at their age or even when I was older. They also ask questions about animals I've never heard of, including a rare South American rodent one girl thought was "really cool." I asked her to find out more about "her new fave" and give a short presentation to the class, and she did. One youngster had questions about sustainability and knew quite a bit about what it meant to live sustainably.
Wolves and possums: "How Come People Say They Love Animals and Kill Them?"
Two "hot topics" that are making the news and about which I've been very interested are the killing of wolves in Washington state (for more discussion please see "Who's Really Defending Wildlife As Wolves Are 'Removed'?") and a nationwide move to rid New Zealand of predators by 2050 (for more on this topic please see "Youngsters Encouraged to Kill Possum Joeys in New Zealand," "Long-Term Effects of Violence Toward Animals by Youngsters," "Imprinting Kids for Violence Toward Animals," and links therein).
In one discussion, I talked around the killing of the wolves until 6-year old Jean asked, "How come people say they love animals and kill them?" and some other youngsters piped right in. Jean and others were pretty serious and clearly wanted to talk about this. This lead to a general discussion of kids and animals and we got into talking about how youngsters in New Zealand are being encouraged to kill animals as part of formal school programs, and then use them to make puppets and to demean them in other ways.
Concerning the situation in New Zealand, every single kid was shocked and disturbed when they heard about school programs centering on killing possums and other animals. When I asked if anyone of them would partake, not a single hand went up. A few kids said they wouldn't do it even if it meant getting kicked out of school. I applaud them and their positive attitudes toward other animals, and could only hope that their teachers and parents would agree with them.
Concerning what's happening in New Zealand, I also was heartened when I received an email from a woman in New Zealand who wrote, "I have seen your recent essays on what is happening in schools throughout my country and I am appalled. Thank you for spreading the word. Can you please help my daughter tell her teachers that she does not want to participate in these types of events and contests?" She also mentioned that other parents agreed with her and were at wit's end because people in power were telling the kids it was perfectly okay to harm and to kill the animals and to parade around with corpses of the animals they slaughtered. (For more discussion please see "Violence Toward Animals: "Can You Please Help My Daughter?")
Returning to Jean's question and the the killing of wolves, most of the kids also were very surprised to learn about this sanctioned license to kill. This discussion went in a number of different directions including how their companion dogs are related to wolves and they surely wouldn't kill their canine friend or let anyone else do them any harm. I was very impressed with this discussion and along these lines, I like to ask people if they would harm or kill a dog in the ways in which wolves and other animals are harmed and killed. Thank goodness, I've never had anyone say "yes."
I also mentioned that Jean's question was right on the mark given on-going discussions about organizations and individuals saying things like, "We/I really love wolves but it's okay to kill some to stop future killing," or by claiming they defend all wildlife. Clearly, they don't (for more on this topic please see "Wolves and Cows: Individual and Organizational Conflicts" and "Who's Really Defending Wildlife As Wolves Are 'Removed'?"). I also mentioned to the youngsters that Jean's question focused on how conflicted people are about saying one thing and allowing or doing the opposite when it came to how we treat other animals.
What I really enjoyed about these and other discussions was how they centered on current "hot" topics, how informed the youngsters were, and how they easily and freely expressed their opinions. It all gave me hope for the future.
When people say they love other animals and harm them, I say I'm glad they don't love me
Right before the discussion ended, one boy commented, "The word love means that you really like someone, right?" and one girl offered, "I love my dog and would never hurt her and I would get really mad if someone else tried to." All of the kids agreed with these sentiments. Many clearly were confused about just what love is, and I thought, so too, are many adults, but that's another topic about which there are many Psychology Today and other essays and reams of books. Nonetheless, it's easy to see how comments like saying one loves animals and then harms and kills them can be confusing for youngsters, as it is for adults.
I thought about how to answer Jean's question briefly before we had to end the discussion, and decided that I could comfortably answer it as if I were talking with adults. So, I said that I, too, am very confused by this sort of contradictory statement. And then I told them what I usually say when I hear something like it, namely, "I'm glad they don't love me." Some of the kids laughed, but I could see that they were pondering what I said.
Our discussion could have gone on for a much longer time, but the session had to close, and I came to realize that this was a perfect ending. The kids could talk more with one another, their teacher, their parents, and with other adults and perhaps get different points of view.
One of the goals in my book Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence was to stimulate discussions about how to rewild classrooms and help youngsters to reconnect with nature and other animals. Discussions about how loving other animals can and should influence how we treat them, along with discussions about how youngsters should be taught to respect other animals rather than being taught to harm and kill them, could easily lead to rewilding education for students of all ages.
I also came to realize that Jean's question could form the basis for entire courses in the fields of conservation psychology and anthrozoology, and I'm sure that many already do discuss Jean's and other questions that the kids asked.
Working with kids is a gift
Working with youngsters is a gift, and I find myself thinking about our stimulating and wide-ranging discussions long after they happened. Their keen interest in the lives of other animals and the ease with which they ask questions, including those centering on difficult topics, is incredibly refreshing.
I hope that many of you have the opportunity to learn about what kids are thinking and feeling about our relationships with other animals and nature in general, and are able to have discussions about these and other topics. Please stand by for more.
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at marcbekoff.com.