Issues Magazine

Animal Welfare and Education

By Compiled by Sally Meakin

Our affinity for animals is undeniable, but welfare education continues to be important in shaping behaviour towards them.

Can you imagine a world without animals? I can’t, and I don’t want to. Our daily lives are filled with them, and raising awareness about their welfare has been a component of social change movements and ethical development for students of all ages for decades.

RSPCA Victoria believes animal welfare education should develop and nurture respect, kindness, empathy and positive attitudes towards people and animals. We offer a comprehensive program that seeks to actively promote education as a preventative strategy. As shelters and rescue organisations continue to witness the tragedy of pet overpopulation and animal neglect and cruelty, animal welfare education seeks to look at ways to change attitudes and behaviours, so the need to rescue and provide frontline services can ultimately be reduced or, in a perfect world, eliminated.

The Human–Animal Bond

The status of companion animals as important members of the family unit has increased significantly over time. Today our society clearly recognises this human–animal bond.

In 2006, the Australian Animal Council reported that more than 63% of Australian households own a pet (similar to the USA), with 91% of them feeling “very close” to their pet, reinforcing that pets are an integral member of the family unit. Often when students are asked to draw their family, the pet is included in the picture, signifying that animals are regarded as valued household members.

Dr Nik Taylor, a sociologist at Flinders University who specialises in the field of human–animal relations, attempted to address the notion of a world without animals: “Our daily lives are filled with animals in [one] way or another … Without them, we’d be bereft of a lot of things.” She admits, however, that human relationships with animals are “tremendously ambiguous” (ibtimes.com, 8 February 2012).

Reports following recent devastating natural disasters in Australia and the USA have indicated that pets appear to be one of the major reasons that people refuse to evacuate dangerous situations. A Zogby International poll of people affected by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama showed that 44% of those who chose not to evacuate did so because they refused to leave their pets behind. Many pet owners stayed with their pets and perished, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

It has been widely noted that most children and teens have an affinity for or at least an interest in animals. Kelly Thompson and Eleonora Gullone noted in the Australian Psychologist (November 2003) that lessons with animal-related content are more likely to capture a student’s attention than other types of programs.

Therefore, there is a real incentive for schools to take part in animal welfare programs. In her research, Violet Harris has demonstrated that children prefer texts that contain animal characters and animal-related content to literature without such characters and content (The Reading Teacher, February 2008). Barbara Beierl noted that it is the extent to which we engage in sympathetic imagination while reading – the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another – that yields empathy (Anthrozoos, 21(3), 2008).

We are aware of the powerful relationships between humans and animals. For a commercial example we just need to look at the success of the Disney movies. Disney identified early on that people, especially children, connect with animals, and they have produced many box office hits with animals in lead roles, such as 101 Dalmatians, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, Finding Nemo, The Jungle Book and The Lion King.

RSPCA Programs

The RSPCA Victoria Education Service has a strong learner-centred approach, ensuring we remain relevant in the 21st century. Our programs are informed by science and are relevant in both content and application; they are also immersive and experiential. Consistent feedback from visitors is that the high level of engagement with animals also increases the authenticity of their learning experience.

We take an integrated and holistic approach, making powerful connections to AusVELS (Australian Curriculum in Victoria) and POLTs (principles of learning and teaching), which help us address the RSPCA’s welfare messages and values. Our programs also address the critical curriculum, or what Glenda MacNaughton and Gillian Williams describe in their book Techniques for Teaching Young Children (1998) as “educational processes which create a more just and wise social world”.

Ethically aware students are empowered to take action and make changes to ensure a sustainable and just world for future generations. The development of current learning spaces, particularly those outside in situ, provide engaging and unique environments in which to deliver rich, real-life learning experiences and strong animal welfare messages.

As a department we seek to actively involve and engage students in a meaningful way. We make sure that the content is immersive and that we address the learning domains and the curriculum objectives, and tick all the measurable boxes required of a successful education service.

We believe our real success and point of difference is addressing other less tangible educational outcomes as well. We not only offer knowledge and technical skills, but demonstrate compassion, integrity and respect at all times through the working relationships that exist between the humans and the animals who are partners in our workplace.

Secondary school students visiting RSPCA Victoria have the opportunity to learn about our campaigns: they debate the ethics of using animals in research and explore the welfare issues associated with the puppy factory industry. The live animal export trade has raised the ambiguity of the factory farming practices, and students are given a forum to discuss how animal welfare breaches can be endemic in mass production as very often they are about efficiencies and cost-cutting. It seems that often humans hold all the cards in human–animal relationships and are not afraid to exploit them as commodities and to use them at will for our own purposes, without consideration for what they give back, for what they are and what they do for us and our society.

Does Animal Welfare Education Work?

As a service we constantly evaluate what we do and how well we are doing it. Are our programs effective? What works best – does one size fit all? Are we helping the students we interact with become better informed? Are we having some impact on those companion animals whose lives are affected by their relationships with humans? Most importantly, are we achieving our goals by shaping attitudes and behaviours of future generations?

Evaluation continues to be challenging: how do we know if we are spending our valuable funds appropriately? In tough economic times, evidence-based solutions and financial bottom lines are emphasised, and education, although valuable, is undoubtedly a long-term investment – often welfare organisations don’t have the luxury of that long-term vision.

Studies examining the results of various welfare education programs, generally in the USA, have demonstrated that there are changes in attitudes and knowledge as part of participation in programs. However, empirical evidence falls short of demonstrating the long-term effect. Longitudinal studies and research are expensive and often prohibitive for not-for-profit organisations to fund.

While we do not have empirical research to support the impact of this kind of education, anecdotally we see the impact this work has on those who attend. We feel the enthusiasm and sense the changes, so the question we should perhaps be asking is: can we prove that it doesn’t work?

From our standpoint, feedback indicates that 84% of students have a better understanding about the needs and welfare of animals after they have participated in an education session at RSPCA Victoria than before. The hard part is knowing if that goes on to ensure that attitudes and behaviours change accordingly.

There is no doubt the investment in good effective animal welfare education must be for the long term – it requires real financial commitment and clear organisational alignment of values. We firmly believe that education is the key to shaping the community’s attitudes of the future.

Animal welfare is becoming mainstream. It’s beginning to shape consumer product choices and the practices of our primary producers. These changing attitudes are driving new behaviours.

Young people are the key to promoting the new animal welfare agenda. RSPCA Victoria’s education service, with its varied programs, provides learners with excellent opportunities to consider the implications of animal welfare issues, their communities and their society, and in the end that has to be good for everyone.

For more information on the RSPCA Victoria’s Education Service visit http://www.rspcavic.org/services/education. The RSPCA Knowledge Base contains a wealth of information on animal welfare, care, training and wildlife and can be found at http://kb.rspca.org.au