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Developing empathy with animals in everyday life

‘Come and see Alex’s great toy,’ my friend gushed to her two year old daughter. What could this great toy be that my son had? Was it the latest computer fad? A child’s electric car that he could drive? The latest talking ‘Bob the Builder’? No. Wrong on all counts.

She was talking about my dog.

This episode happened over ten years ago, but it stays in my mind, especially with the work I do now, as an example of how even intelligent, educated people can get it so wrong when introducing their children to animals. So how do you get it right? How, in everyday life, can you easily reinforce to children that animals are not toys, existing only for their entertainment, but a living, thinking, feeling creature?

Alex, my son with the ‘great toy’, has Aspergers Syndrome. Many of the ideas I mention in my training sessions have originally come from ideas to develop his empathy and understanding of animals. It can be done in so many simple statements that you make, things you do and actions you take. So these are my top three tips on easily encouraging an empathy with animals.

1. Respecting animals' needs

1. Obviously if you have a pet animal in the home then you are a role model. The children learn from you about ensuring that the animal has everything that it needs and that it is respected as a living thing. Any animal will want a rest time and a quiet time - even an excitable puppy.

Ensuring that a dog or cat has a place it can sleep undisturbed and explaining that it’s important not to disturb their quiet time is just a little way of encouraging the idea that the animal is not a plaything - that its needs matter too. Similarly, if you as the adult can tell that the rabbit/guinea pig/hamster has had enough of being handled or played with, then it is time for the animal to be left alone.

This is for the child’s sake as much as for the animal’s, as an irritable, tired animal is far more likely to scratch or bite. Far better to use this time as a lesson in respecting animals’ needs, rather than a lesson in how much a bite from a hamster can hurt!

2. The Five Freedoms

If you don’t have pet animals, the chances are that you will still come into contact with them as some form of entertainment - at a zoo, open farm or sanctuary perhaps.

We want children to be interested in animals, and most usually are, but we also want them to recognise that the animals are more than just there for their entertainment.

 A simple ‘job’ that I used to give to my son was to check all the animals were being looked after properly. He was never very interested in animals, but has always been interested in making sure everyone is following ‘the rules’!

Once I explained about the Five Freedoms that all animals should have his mission when visiting anywhere that had animals was to check that they had enough food and water, enough space, company if they should have it, the right sort of environment and that they looked healthy.

The result of that is that neither of my children see animals as entertainment first - they are seen as animals that need to be cared for properly first and foremost.

3. High welfare products

I’ve accepted that I like meat too much to ever be vegetarian. However, I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I can choose to pay a bit more and buy high welfare products.

My children have grown up knowing this and knowing what the ‘Freedom Food’ label looks like so that when I send my daughter to ‘get a happy chicken’ she knows what she’s looking for.

The fact that my smart alec son will often come out with: ‘You know Mam, it’s really not thathappy... because it’s dead…..’ is a family joke, but they do understand the reasoning behind this is that it doesn’t matter if that animal is eventually going to die to feed us, its life should still have been free from suffering. Even when shopping I’m constantly trying to reinforce the idea that animals matter - whatever their ultimate ‘use’ to us is.

There are so many little ways a respect and understanding of animals can be encouraged in children, that take no time really and little effort. I’ve only had the space in my blog to mention three, but on our website there are many more ideas, including a newly developed section simply for parents and carers.

And of course, not referring to any animal as ‘a great toy’ is always a good starting point too...

About the author

Before joining the education department of the RSPCA, Helen taught in Middle Schools in Northumberland for 14 years.  Now in her role as a Prevention Programme Adviser for the RSPCA she provides training for foster carers, social workers and youth justice professionals on developing an empathy with animals in vulnerable and troubled children and young people. She is delighted to have been asked to blog for PACEY.

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